More about objects

Discussing object-oriented philosophy, Voyou Desoeuvré suggests:

It’s worth disentangling a number of different ways in which objects could be thought to be “real.” First would be to maintain that objects cannot be reduced to their components, either physical or sensory (that is, there really is a chair over there, not just an aggregate of atoms or sense-perceptions). Second would be maintain that these objects exist independently of human minds, knowledge or perception. Third, this could be expanded to get away from a human/object binary, and so maintain that objects are independent of other objects: that in each interaction of an object with something else, there is something in that object over and above what is involved in that interaction. Fourth, one could universalize this position, saying that, not only is an object never completely involved in any particular relation, but that objects are withdrawn from all relations, that their core being is not involved in any relations at all.

And he goes on to question whether the fourth of these steps is necessary. I find this clarifying. I too go along with Harman on steps 1-3, but I reject step 4. My reason for doing so is not quite the same as Voyou’s, but it is obviously this that I need to work out more fully.

Harman argues, I think, that step 4 is necessary in order not to reduce objects merely to the sum of their qualities. In fact, I am even willing to accept this provision, but still without moving on to step 4. Here is where Harman would probably find my position contradictory or impossible; if I agree to steps 1-3, and if I also agree that an object is not to be identified with the sum of its qualities (which means that it cannot be grasped even as the sum of all the possible encounters other objects could have with it), then am I not forced to accept the object’s independence of relations, as posited in step 4? Otherwise, I am evidently in danger of falling into the infinite regress of Lewis Carroll’s logicist version of Achilles and the Tortoise. Nonetheless, I still find myself resisting at this particular point.

Unsurprisingly, I think that Whitehead successfully pulls off the balancing act that is necessary in order to accept object independence without denying relationality. It has to do with the way that an entity’s prehensions are always partial (or negative as well as positive), and that this bundle of prehensions is only unified (and therefore only generated) by a process of selection among eternal objects.

(God makes the eternal objects available, but he doesn’t have any influence over what selection is made — and this is why I don’t think Harman is entirely right to lump Whitehead with Leibniz as a theological occasionalist. Whitehead’s occasionalism — if that is what it is — may not be as fully secular as Latour’s, but the peculiar marginality of his concept of God is explicitly presented as a critique of Leibniz’s God; it moves precisely in the direction of “secularizing God,” instead of in the much more familiar direction of altogether abolishing him. I think — as I wrote in my book — that there is more to be said for this strategy, even for an atheist such as myself. It may even be a better way to resolve certain problems, such as the infinite regress of mediators, that Harman has with Latour’s own version of secular occasionalism).

More generally, I resist Harman’s move to Voyou’s step 4 because (as I already say in my article on Harman coming out later this year in The Speculative Turn — I think this move omits, or renders inessential, all considerations about an object’s becoming and perishing. That is to say, it doesn’t take the radical temporality of objects or (or of what Simondon calls individuals, or of what Whitehead calls actual entities) seriously enough. Harman resists all talk of potentialities (or of Deleuze’s virtual), and of processes of becoming, as undermining (or of “overmining”) the reality of objects. But I don’t think this need be the case. I would urge the question of potentials and becomings as as a better reason than the one Voyou gives (he interestingly cites Hegel and Berkeley) for staying with steps 1-3 without going on to step 4. What this comes down to, in “speculative realist” terms, is to read Harman together with Iain Hamilton Grant.

Harman is always saying that Whitehead does not at all belong with Bergson, Deleuze, and Grant, because they dissolve objects into flux, whereas Whitehead (despite his relationalism) insists on precisely delimited individual entities. But the whole point is to specify how we flip from one of these situations into the other; and that is something Whitehead, with his dual aspect notion of entities (public/private, mental/physical, etc.), does better (I think) than either Harman (who emphasizes only the closed-off entity) or Deleuze (who emphasizes mostly the flux) is able to do by himself.

What I have here is not (yet) an argument, but only a note to myself about the sort of argument that I want to make. I hope to work this through better by the time of the Object-Oriented Ontology conference coming up at Georgia Tech this spring. I think the differences between Harman, Deleuze, Whitehead, etc, need to be grasped as aesthetic oness (agreeing with Harman — and also, I think, less explicitly, both Deleuze and Whitehead — that aesthetics is indeed “first philosophy.” I am also trying to think more about how neo-vitalism and panpsychism intersect with “speculative realism,” and in particular with those branches of it that do retain (even in what might seem to some to be the vitiated form I am advocating here) object-orientation of some sort.