From Madrid: Some replies to recent OOO posts

So, I know I´m in Spain, and I know I said I was gonna take a break from blogging, but that doesn´t mean I´ve stopped reading them, and well, one thing recently roused me, so I guess I´ll pop my head up outta the sand for a minute or two . . .

As usual, whenever Graham and Levi disagree with Steve Shaviro, I tend to find Steve´s arguments compelling. In the most recent volley, in a recent post over at Larval Subjects, Levi says the following, which I totally agree with:

I am, however, left scratching my head as to why people think the objects of object-oriented ontology can’t become or have a processual dimension. The premise seems to be that objects are static and therefore need to be replaced by processes or events. I don’t see how this follows at all or how it is even true . . .

I couldn´t agree more. If you design your objects or their contexts so that change is built into the system, then I don´t see where the problem is. My sense would be that objects need to emerge out of some sort of virtual-ish flux, but Levi feels that the virtual exists in objects, and I´m waiting to see this argument develop in full in the future.

But then Levi says this, with which I disagree:

Again, I’m left scratching my head. The thesis that OOO is unable to account for the genesis and perishing of objects has come up a couple of times (notably from Vitale). However, here again I’m left scratching my head. First, I just don’t see what the big mystery is here. Objects are generated out of other objects. When objects enter into certain relations with one another closure, under certain circumstances, is achieved and a new object is born. In other words, objects are emergent entities that emerge out of other entities. It seems to me that object-oriented ontologists talk about such emergence quite often. Likewise, the destruction or perishing of objects takes place when enough of the parts belonging to the endo-structure of an object are destroyed or taken away, undermining the ability of the object to maintain itself across time. Consequently, I just don’t see how OOO theorists are guilty of not having an account of the genesis and perishing of objects. Second, I don’t see how the category of the virtual as theorized by Bell and Shaviro solves this problem either.

One big problem I have with Levi´s thesis is the incredible use of the passive voice (something I always tell my students in comp not to do, for particularly this very reason!). The passive voice is a way of saying the annonymnous ´they´or some unnamed agent did something, and we see it here: “closure is acheived . . . objects are generated.”

My question is – who are what creates this closure, generates these objects? And perhaps more importantly, from what perspective does this entity or force or whatever view these things, and decide when they happen? For example, when Levi says “closure is acheived”, well, who determines what is closed, and what is open? A semi-permeable cell membrane, closed from some points of view, open from others, semi-open from yet others. Now if you say from the object´s perspective, well, that´s at least saying something, but then one needs to do the work of saying what that means or entails – does the object know it has a perspective, or is this perspective described by a more intelligent entity´s perspective? A whole can or worms unfolds with this approach.

The same issue arises with “objects are generated.” But from whose perspective? You can´t say no-one´s, it doesn´t work, because then you surreptitiously imply a god’s eye perspective, with all the baggage that entails (ie: omniscience, perfect adjudication, etc.) But when I walk down the street, and just see a lot of junk, but someone else sees one particular bit of that junk as a distinct lamp perfect for decorating their house, well, the line of demarcation between objects differs radically based on our perspectives. Which is why I think the demarcation of objects, which includes the determination of when one starts and another ends (think of the abortion debates!), is either determined by a multiplicity of perspectives, many of which may be right or wrong or better or worse in a given context, OR, there´s a god’s eye perspective implied here, and there´s very different baggage here.

So, which of these options is Levi going for? I´m not sure, but I´m also not sure I see a third way.

The only third way I can think of, and one that I´m NOT ACCUSING OBJECT-ORIENTED APPROACHES OF ADVOCATING, is the eternal objects approach, in which every possible object ever exists for all eternity but ingresses in varying degrees in reailty as permitted by the actual. A whole diff set of baggage, but one I know that object-oriented theories don´t approve of (and nor do I).

As for Levi´s first point, I DO think you need something like the virtual, and I like the fact that he includes the virtual INSIDE his objects (as I understand them). Does that mean, though, that there is a virtual, in some sense, in general? And is there any virtual between objects, is this that from which new objects emerge, and into which old ones vanish?

This would make me happy, because it would at least satisfy my concern that right now, objects emerge ex nihilo. Call me old fashion, but I tend to think that everything has to come from somewhere, otherwise, philosophy might as well advocate magic. So, if there´s virtual stuff somewhere, and this virtual has something to do with something like a big bang at some point, then I´m a bit happier. Then again, no-one really has to make me happy, but I doubt I´m the only one who actually believes in stuff like the big bang.

But without the virtual in some form, I don´t see how object-oriented aproaches, while doing a great job describing the discontinuity of being, deal with the issue of the continuity of being. Both need, to me at least, to be addressed, or your theory is incomplete.

So let´s take an example. I walk out of my house, and there in front of it is a big, furry dog. The object of the dog enters into combination with the object that is me, and a new, compound object is formed of my perception of the dog (and all three of these objects are split appropriately).

But who gets to say that this compound object really exists? In this case, I do, because I´m the one that sees the dog. But if you are in the house, looking out the window, and see me, but not the dog, and you see me from behind, so you don´t even see my face change when I see something, then the compound object of ´me seeing dog´doesn´t exist to this other person, right? So, does the object ´me seeing dog´exist, or not? This is why I think perspective is so important. TO ME, it exists, but to say it exists in itself hits me as problematic.

Likewise with the genesis and destruction of this new compound object. From my perspective, that object begins when I see the dog, and ends when I, say, walk back inside the house and stop looking at that dog. But to ask when that object formed or dissolved in itself seems to me to be a nonsensible question. Because to my friend in the house, that object never existed in the first place. This is why I think that, without perspective, the question of the genesis or destruction of objects generates paradoxes.

And of course, the situation gets much more complex when we involve non-conscious entities. Because we can say that the grass stepped on by this dog and that dog form a compound, new entity when the dog steps on the grass, but without a conscious being to notice this, to decide this is a distinct object, with a distinct start and end, and conditions of closure, I´m not sure it can happen without generating paradoxes.

So, is there perspective in regard to the genesis, dissolution, and distinction of objects, or not? And if so, whose perspective, and does this change in regard to the case at hand?

Otherwise, as Levi says, I´m left scratching my head.


Of course, all this was in response to Graham´s response to Steve´s recent post. Graham says the following:

Yes, for the most part I tend to view “the virtual” as the most systematically overrated concept of our time . . . whenever someone tries to replace things with activities or process, I “reach for my revolver,” as they say. This is a mental rut of the past 100 years: “Things and substances and nouns, bad! Processes and events and verbs, good!”

Now I actually agree with Graham that there are problems with the notion of the virtual in Deleuze, and this is why my networkological project distinguishes between what it describes as the virtual (as that which is included in something else indirectly) and potential. Deleuze uses the term virtual to describe both of these ideas, and for reasons beyond the scope of this post, I think its better to separate these.

But in regard to Graham´s second point. I think the term virtual does important work still, and I think the process argument is still needed. Because if you don´t have processes and events, verbs, then you have a punctuated universe. And then you have to figure out where change comes from (Zeno arrives back on the scene!). And this is what I worry about with object-oriented approaches, and especially those without the virtual – how do you then bridge the gap? And how do you avoid the paradoxes I outlined in the section above, in response to Levi?

Now of course, if you argue that ALL is process, you have a different set of paradoxes (Zeno arrives on the scene a second time). The only compelling understanding of things I can figure out is one which has both processes and objects, continua and punctuations.

Now Graham is right, there comes a time when a corrective move is no longer needed. And Levi has in the past argued that in our age, relation can be as obfuscating as punctuation when either of these gets reified. So the problem isn´t punctuation or relation, but capitalist REIFICATION, of objects, of flows, of relations, what have you.

Ok, but the point is, to figure reification, you need to see context and the possibility for change. Verbs, right? The verbs gotta come in somewhere. I agree, a knee-jerk reaction saying “nouns bad, verbs good, objects bad, process good” is silly and superficial. Processes form objects, that´s pretty obvious. But objects must also come from processes, unless there´s a logical step I´m missing here. And if the point is to make sure that change is possible, then there must be verbs, somewhere, in it all, either within the objects, or outside of them.


~ by chris on August 4, 2010.

6 Responses to “From Madrid: Some replies to recent OOO posts”

  1. Chris, I read Levi’s blog but am eagerly awaiting his book to get a more systematic presentation of his views. However my primary understanding of OOP comes more from Graham which seems quite at odds with a process view let alone say a more semiotic view.

    For those of us with only a superficial view of OOP what are we to make of this? Are we just to suggest that change is a vague ill-determined issue here or that the question of change isn’t central to OOP?

    • Hi Clark, well, I do think that some paradoxes arise with the account of change presented by OOP, as I’m sure is pretty clear. At least, from the texts that have so far been published, or that I’ve read, etc. But Levi and Graham seem pretty convinced that the relational critiques that folks like me, Steve, Adrian, and some others have produced don’t hold water because we don’t really understand the way OOP works. Which is possible, mostly because its a new approach, and not much has really been published so far on it. But from what I’ve read so far, I don’t see it. But I’ve been wrong before! But the explanations I’ve gotten back to the points I’ve made so far don’t seem to convince me. I’m not sure what to make of this, though, because I’m only one person, and I’ve been wrong before!

  2. I’m responding through my phone so my remarks will have to be abbreviated. I believe I’ve already answered these criticisms in previous posts. First, I do not argue that new objects arise from nothing. They arise from other objects. Second, the passive voice is important because it’s no one object in an assemblage that presides over the formation of a new object. New objects are formed when objects begin recprocally perturbing one another in such a way that they come to form an interdependent system with new emergent powers of it’s own. I’m perplexed as to what you mean by the virtual as it sounds very remote from Deleuze’s usage. It sounds like you’re arguing that humans make objects what they are. Not only do I believe that this is quite contrary to Whitehead’s and Shaviro’s position, but I also wonder if you’re willing to argue that the dog you’re walking constitutes your being


    • Hi Levi

      Its funny, cause each time I´m amazed how you´re amazed about the points I´m making, then I re-explain, then you re-explain, and we seem to get nowhere. Perhaps this isn´t the most productive conversation to keep having, and we should agree to disagree.

      But I´m not sure that the issues I´m raising – genesis, decomposition, change, distinction – will simply go away. Its really easy for an echo chamber to develop on the interwebs, but I´m hardly the only relationalist or process guy out there. My sense is that if OOO doesn´t answer these critiques now, they´re gonna keep coming back. I also think that OOO needs to come up with some better replies, or there´s gonna be a lot of relationalists out there, other than me, scratching their heads. Because its one thing to say, ok, I disagree with this point of view, but I see where it comes from and it makes sense.

      But some of the arguments you make don´t make sense to me, and that´s why I keep coming back to them, they seem to miss some points that, at least to me, seem pretty obvious. This is what makes me kinda fascinated by all this.

      My hunch is that this will keep happening unless OOO finds a way to talk to relationalists in a language that can make sense to them when they raise such points, as I think will inevitably happen in the future. As I said, I´m hardly the only relationalist or process guy out there. Once we get to a point at which we can say – ok, here´s where we disagree, but I understand that if you commit to these positions, the rest follows – then I think the situation changes. But as I see it right now, the position you take produces paradoxes, and you disagree. That´s more than just disagreeing about axioms, but about much more basic stuff.

      To your specific points. Yes, objects arise out of other objects, but when you follow this chain of logic backwards, you end up at a causa sui of some sort, no? Or is each object its own causa sui, or (god forbid!) eternal? Beyond this, though, if objects come from other objects, they must be connected by something. Perhaps this is the virtual, and IT is what links objects to a causa sui. I mean, I´m a firm believer that there was a big bang of some sort. Were the objects created there? I hope so! Of course, this would be a very special kind of object, which has been brought up many times before. But the difficulty really isn´t here, its with perspective, the question of who or what ´gets to say´ at which moment a specific object starts, ends, distinguishes itself, or changes (ie: the abortion debates), and this is precisely were we disagree. The issue of passive voice is merely a reflection of this.

      So in terms of perspective, the use of the passive voice indicates a god´s eye point of view. Do you really want to go there? Philosophy spent almost as much time and effort working to getting rid of this as it is doing now, if differently, in regard to forms of hyper-subjectivism. I think that perspectivism, when RADICALIZED, is a third way. But I´m not talking about merely human perspective or consciousness. Electrons have perspectives too, and these matter.

      In terms of the virtual, my networkologies work does break with Deleuze on this term, and you are sensing my implicit critique here, but this isn´t the place to get into that. But yeah, the way I frame Deleuze´s approach is based on what I´m trying to do that´s different from him, so that´s what you´re likely picking up on here.

      But do I think that humans make objects what they are? Or that my dog constitutes my being? Well, its more that I´d reframe the question, cause posed as is its too Heideggeran for me, I sense a ding-an-sich in here, and I tend not to like those sorts of things. I´m not sure I think that I can know anything much about Being with a capital B, outside of any perspective. If it doesn´t have a direct or indirect impact on the world in which I exist, can I really have anything to say about it that means anything?

      But, if I were to speak this language a bit (which really reframes the terrain of what I´m trying to say, but let´s engage in this for a moment), sure, you could say that the dog, TO SOME EXTENT, constitutes my being, but so does everything else that exists, to some extent and in its way. I´m pretty Leibnizian here, I think that everything has a perspective on what exists, and everything impacts and is contained, in refraction, in everything else, to some degree and in its way. So the dog constitutes ´part of my being´, but so does everything else that exists, in the past, present, and future, to some degree and in its way. But I don´t think there is any ´me´outside of the horde of interconnected perspectives thereupon, for if there were, how could I ever know? And would it make a difference? Unless something can even indirectly perturb the perspective of something linked to mine, I don´t know if I can say anything meaningful about it that isn´t just silly. And isn´t the point of a flat ontology precisely to construct something immanent, something a little less otherworldly than what we´ve had before? So, all this talk of capital B “Being” isn´t quite my style.

      But radical perspectivism is. That´s where I´m coming from. Multiplicitous, plural, interrelated, shifting, and with all sorts of semi-withdrawal built in at a plethora of points (semi, because we could never sense complete withdrawal!).

      Ok, first time I wrote it it got erased, with any luck it didn´t suffer second go round.


  3. […] interesting discussion has popped up between Graham, Levi, Chris Vitale and Steven Shaviro, on accounting for the genesis and perishing of objects in OOO and how this […]

  4. […] is also from the guy who compared me to inept undegrads in his composition courses, writing the following: One big problem I have with Levi´s thesis is the incredible use of the passive voice (something I […]

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