Potential Objects? OOO/P, Networks, and Perspectival Relationalism
A response to Levi’s response. So I’ve been sifting through Levi and Graham blog-posts via the search function, and Amazon tells me my copy of ‘Tool Being’ will arrive sometime before September (what the?! first it was $3,000, now this?!), and Prince of Networks and Difference and Givenness are still only the appetizers for Democracy of Objects and The Quadruple Object. So I’m working somewhat in the dark here, but here’s a try, cause I wanna get this right.
And once again, I want to stress, this is written with the utmost respect for Levi and Graham. What I’m trying to do is understand OOP/O, and how it may relate to the networkological project I’m working on. My sense is there’s more similarities than differences, but in figuring this all out, I want to make sure I understand at least where the OOO/P project is coming from . . .
Plasma and Grounds
Yes, I couldn’t agree with Levi more, Latour invokes plasma to get out of a bind:
The idea is that there must be some unknown quantity that accounts for change. Yet this whole question emerges directly from Latour’s actualism and relationism. How? If we argue that objects are their relations, then we are left with the problem of how anything can change at all because there is nothing but relations from whence change could come. Consequently, Latour is led to evoke the concept of plasma to introduce this missing quantity that would account for change.
I agree completely. The whole reason why there is a need for not only nodes and links but also grounds is precisely to allow for change, to tie networks into context, the outside, process, etc. And yes, this implies that networks have to do with something that is KNOWN. But contrary to appearances, this does not mean that the networkological approach falls into the epistemic fallacy. Why not?
Endo/Domestic and Exo/Foreign: A Discourse with(out) a Subject?
Before explaining this, I want to make sure I’m getting some key terms right, because they are essential for what follows: Endo/domestic-relations, Exo/foreign-relations. Here’s Graham’s explanation in regard to the infamous cane toad:
For example… The cane toad is obviously dependent on the relations of its bodily organs. Disconnect all of its organs from the others, and the cane toad is not a living cane toad anymore. The cane toad is to some extent dependent on its pieces to be what it is. But note in passing that even this is not entirely the case. You can remove or replace any number of atoms in the cane toad without changing it. You could quite possibly even do a bizarre medical experiment and replace its heart with an artificial heart, and if done expertly this might have no discernible impact on the cane toad at all. However, it is true that you cannot remove all the relations of which a thing is composed and still have it be there. These are what I call the “domestic” relations of an object . . . From the fact that the cane toad cannot exist without a certain sort of relation between its pieces, it does not follow that the cane toad is relationally defined with respect to the outer world. The same cane toad could be moved to Japan or Italy and still be the same. Sure, different nutrients in the different places might soon change it, but that’s a more complicated and derivative problem. The point is that, in principle, the cane toad is able to enter Australia because it’s already a cane toad. It can be shuffled around between different contexts and within certain limits still remain the seem creature despite its shifting foreign relations. Almost constantly, relationism is defended by observing that anything with various parts must already be relational. This misses the difference between the two kinds of relations: there is asymmetry between them. The object itself is a sort of firewall blocking the two forms of relations from one another.
It seems to me that the toad’s endo/domestic-relations are those which, if some necessary and sufficient number of which are suspended (and I wonder how this threshold is set), stops being able to perform or exist as a cane toad (which is distinguished from being a toad, being an animal, etc., for each of these is a different object, each of which is nested in the others). Right?
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?
Dormant Objects, Potential Objects, Eternal Objects
All of which brings us to what I’m trying to get at in regard to ‘eternal objects,’ which are related to issues Graham brings up in regard to what he fascinatingly calls ‘dormant objects’:
What I need, in other words, is a thought experiment that keeps the domestic relations while annihilating all of the foreign ones. And I think that can be done simply by imagining an object that is composed of relations but not involved in any further ones in its own right. In fact, I hold that the world is riddled with millions of these, and I call them sleeping or (better yet) dormant objects. Adrian’s position obviously does not allow for dormant objects, and neither does Latour’s. But not only are they necessary, they are also highly interesting. I hold that the task of thinking is, in fact, to discover dormant objects in any area thought about.
Can dormant objects be created or destroyed? It seems they can be created by destroying all exo-relations. But can they be destroyed? If not, does that mean they are eternal?
Now, I see why Levi makes the distinction between actual and potential infinity in this regard, as well as his differences from Graham in this area (actualism for Graham, and potentialism, if we want to call it that, for Levi). While I see Levi’s point, I’m not talking about the difference between actual/potential infinity here only in regard to the object, but the object in relation to the world.
That is, let’s say after the earth stops being inhabitable – does this mean that a cane toad becomes a dormant object, for when a planet like earth evolves again? Doesn’t then the dormant object of a cane toad necessarily continue to exist as a sort of potential object – which could re-emerge with manifestations, given the right conditions – for all time?
Of course, if we go there, we need to go backwards as well – wasn’t the cane toad necessarily then always a potential for a place like earth, which was itself always a potential of the universe? Weren’t these then potential objects, just waiting for the right conditions to come along? And if not, how are we to differentiate these from dormant objects? (As you see, virtual and potential infinity aren’t really at issue here.)
For in fact, if we admit potential objects, then it would seem they cannot be created or destroyed, leaving us with the need for something like eternal objects – which both Leibniz and Whitehead need in one form or another (and which show up in Deleuze as lekta, for example). And it seems to me that Levi is leaning towards potential objects, at least in a quote like this:
Place the object in new exo-relations and you get new qualities. That’s it. All that is required by onticology (and here onticology diverges markedly from Harman’s object-oriented ontology) is that objects have the potential to actualize different qualities. It is by no means necessary that they do actualize these other qualities. Indeed, for onticology (and I believe Graham as well), it’s not necessary that objects manifest any qualities at all. Objects are not their qualities.
Wouldn’t an object that doesn’t manifest any qualities have the potential to do so, and hence, be a potential object? Why wouldn’t these necessarily then be eternal?
And if not, then we need to think the genesis or destruction of objects. But if objects can be created and destroyed (Levi says in his last post: “Objects are destroyed all the time by virtue of a destruction of their endo-composition or endo-relational structure”), how does this happen? Who or what accounts for their genesis/destruction? What is the necessary/sufficient conditions at which a cane toad ceases to be a cane toad, on this earth or in this universe or any other, and more importantly, who or what gets to decide this?
My sense is that there’s a hidden quasi-subject that decides these things. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, so long as this is not a traditional notion of a subject . . .
Ontology or Epistemology? Yes please . . . (or, blowing up the subject)!
Which is why I think that not only does networkological relationism need some sort of subject, but if I’m understanding them correctly, object-oriented philosophies as well. That said, I don’t think this is any sort of traditional subject. This is where I think Levi thinks I’m a bit retrograde (but I think he’s got me wrong on this).
In his last post, Levi argues that I’m falling into what Bhaskar calls the ‘epistemological fallacy’ of reducing ontological questions to epistemological ones. But that’s not quite the case. My use of networks is one in which a network is ALWAYS seen from a position or perspective. But the perspective in question is not necessarily human, in fact, any spacetime location entails a separate and distinct perspective on what exists, and therefore, a set of networks appropriate to its ‘view’ on what is. I’m not saying that an electron taking up such a position is conscious of this fact, but I am saying, following Whitehead, that what perspective serves to do is create ‘networks of reference’ (my term) for that electron which rank the relevance (Whitehead’s term) of each potential influence on that electron, based on factors such as distance, as well as the ‘potential to be affected’ by a given influence (Whitehead’s famous ‘negative prehensions’).
Are these ‘networks of reference’ epistemological? Well, yes, if you consider an electron as capable of having an epistemology, and if not, the term simply does not properly apply. That said, even if there is no electron there to do the ‘viewing’ of such a perspective, so to speak, there is still a spacetime location there which, in conjunction with the rest of what is, ranks the relevance of any given influence in regard to that location as a factor of distance. Are these ‘networks of reference’ epistemological or ontological? Well, my answer is the Zizekian favorite, yes please! That is, I don’t think that distinction applies here.
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.
That is, if each perspective has its networks of reference, whether these be the (relatively) simple networks of an electron, or the massively nested ones of a human being, it is the subject at issue, in relation to the contexts with which it co-constructs its networks of reference, which gets to decide this. For my nephew, a cane toad really IS a froggie, even if to that amphibian specialist its a cane toad, while to an electron, it is none of these. This is where networkological and object-oriented approaches differ. But I think where we must be the same is that either there are potential objects, which are then necessarily eternal (for reasons presented above), or objects must be able to be created/destroyed, in relation to a given perspective. If this perspective implies a form of subjectivity or correlationism which is not necessarily human, but rather, part of the structure of the world itself, then I think we have a speculative realism we can agree upon, with potentially relational and object-oriented varieties.
I’m not sure I’ve got the object-oriented end of things right here, and I’m more than happy to learn more. But if I’ve got it right, is the chain of logic then sound? My sense is that this multiplicitous, shattered subject is also in some sense necessary in relation to object-oriented thought, and that this is part of why networkological relationalism is in some senses so similar. Yes?