Levi Bryant, in a recent blog entry, argues against the reductionist critique that would see only subatomic particles as “real,” since they are the building blocks of everything on a larger scale. Reductionism argues, in effect, that larger entities (such as “trees”) are not actual objects, but only our own way of constructing or organizing a quantum reality that we cannot perceive directly.

In opposition to this, Levi rightly says that, if quarks and leptons are actual objects independent of our own perceptual projections, then things like trees are actual objects independent of our own perceptua projections as well.

However, I am not sure I agree with Levi’s reasons for defending the independence of objects of all scales. Or rather, I do agree, more or less, with his first argument:

The point that a rock contains atoms, electrons, and other particles besides, does not undermine the thesis that the rock itself is an object, nor does it make the rock less real than the particles it contains. While it is indeed true that the rock cannot exist without these particles, the pattern or structure or system that characterizes the rock is nonetheless what characterizes the rock as a distinct object.

This is one way of understanding Whitehead’s insistence that philosophy must not “explain away” anything, but must accept the reality of the beautiful sunset as well as the reality of photons of different energy levels. (The point of Whitehead’s example is precisely that the beautiful sunset is part of “nature” just as much as the photons are, and that it cannot be “explained away” as being merely a subjective human interpretation, or as involving “secondary qualities” instead of primary ones, etc. The sunset, every bit as much as the photon, is itself a real object, irreducible to the way that human consciousness posits and grasps it).

But I disagree with his second argument:

All objects are independent of one another. This is where the mereological thesis gets really strange. The particles that the rock contains are themselves independent objects and the rock itself an object independent of the particles that it contains. Thus, while the rock cannot exist without these particles, the rockness of the rock is nonetheless independent of the particles that contain it.

This is the defining thesis of object-oriented metaphysics, held by Graham Harman as well as Levi, that I cannot make sense of. I do not see how it is possible, or conceivable, for anything to exist independently of everything else. For it is only due to other things that any particular thing can exist in the first place. I am not reducible to the particles and atoms that compose my body,  just as I am not reducible to the oxygen I breathe, the food I eat, the language I speak, the clothes I wear, and the money that sustains my existence in this society; just as the tree is not reducible, either to the atoms that compose it, or to the sunlight and atmosphere that sustain it, the animals that help to fertilize its seeds, etc. But it seems to me to be incoherent to essentialize this “not reducible to” by equating it with some sort of absolute existence, in and of itself. A dependent being is not reducible to what it is dependent upon (or to what, in turn, is dependent upon it); but neither can it be posited as a self-contained being altogether apart from the other beings upon which it depends

To even propose such a thesis of substance, or object-independence — as Harman and Bryant do — is to freeze objects in time, and to rule out the reality of genesis, becoming, and transformation. It is to posit an endurance that is somehow independent of time, i.e. that time only affects secondarily, contingently, from the outside as it were.

This is where (as usual) I prefer Whitehead’s account to the more recent “object-oriented” one. Whitehead fully recognizes how a thing, or an object, is independent of, and irreducible to, its causes, components, and supports or preconditions or milieu. But he goes to great lengths to prevent this independence from being hypostasized as an enduring substance. A Whiteheadian “actual occasion” (or “actual entity”) is in fact independent of everything contemporaneous with it (just as Bryant and Harman claim);No entity is merely a passive result of what precedes it, because every entity makes a “decision” with regard to the “data” that it “prehends” (perceives, touches, is affected by, etc.). Indeed, the independence of an entity/occasion in the present is precisely the consequence of its “decision” with regard to its past. Contemporaneous decisions made by different entites do not influence one another, which is why things can be different, and the new can be produced, even within a common environment or a common set of antecedents.

However — such an “actual entity” is not a substance (in Harman’s sense) or a subsisting object (in Bryant’s sense), because it precisely does not endure. That is to say, it is a process rather than a substance. Once it happens, it is done; it is now dead, or (as Whitehead likes to put it), “objectively immortal” — it is now a mere datum for other processes to come. In this way, the entity is not independent of its antecedents and consequences. It comes out of those things that it makes a decision about, and it influences the rest of reality as something about which other entities must make a decision. It cannot be completely prehended or apprehended by any following entity — it is always grasped only partially and incompletely, just as Harman requires of objects in relation to other objects. And yet it is in its essence relational, because it arises out of already-given data and donates itself to the future as data.

In other words, the punctuality of Whitehead’s actual occasions, the fact that they are “perpetually perishing,” is what gives them over to temporality — in contrast to the way that time remains necessarily secondary and external for the “object-oriented” thinkers. Or, Whitehead’s doctrine of actual occasions does in fact meet all the criteria of Harman’s and Bryant’s object-oriented thought, while at the same time being essential temporal and relational in a way that their notion of object-independence is unable to compass. Harman and Bryant are right in what they require of objects; but there is more to it than they are willing to compass. Whitehead doesn’t contradict the “object-oriented” argument, so much as he places it within a wider context of relations. What Harman and Bryant see as an opposition, is for Whitehead rather a contrast.

I am not really saying anything different from what I say in my formal article critiquing Harman, which I will be delivering tomorrow as a talk at the SLSA conference in Atlanta; and which will appear, together with Harman’s own spirited  rejoinder, in the forthcoming volume The Speculative Turn. But I think that Bryant’s formulations in his latest blog posting have allowed me, or spurred me, to make one aspect of the argument clearer than it was before.

[Note to self: this is still incomplete. I need to write also about how Whitehead conceives “societies”, which can be objects that more or less endure through time, like myself or a tree. Societies are composed of actual entites, but not in the way that physical objects are composed of subatomic particles; there is a crucial “mereological” argument here, one that I still need to work out better — but that differs from Bryant’s account of parts and wholes. Also, I need to broaden the sense in which Whitehead’s approach bridges the gap between object-orientation on the one hand, and the emphasis on becoming and transformation and crystallizations of the actual out of the virtual that one finds in Bergson, Deleuze, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Harman regards this as an irreconcilable opposition — for him, there is no middle ground between the object-orientation of his own thought, Bryant’s, and Latour’s, and the process orientation of the above-mentioned thinkers. But Whitehead precisely undoes this dichotomy — and that is something else that I still need to work out more fully and cogently].

18 thoughts on “Objects?”

  1. Great post, Steven. In the case of my ontology (can’t speak for Harman here as I think his position on this is distinct and more radical than mine on this issue), I wonder if the language of “independence” isn’t here causing confusion. When I use the word “independent” I mean something closer to what you refer to as “not reducible to”. I think I make this point pretty clearly in the post you’re responding to. For example, I point out that the rock can’t exist without the atoms and the body can’t exist without its cells, but nonetheless there’s an important sense in which an organic body and a rock are “independent of” both atoms and cells. The cells of the body are constantly passing in and out of existence, yet an organic body and a rock persist throughout time. On these grounds I’m led to the conclusion that the rockness of a rock or the bodiness of a body is, in an important sense, something distinct from the other objects that it contains.

    I really don’t get your whole time argument. Nothing about this thesis leads to the conclusion that objects must be eternal or that they cannot have becoming or come-into-being and pass-away. Take the example of a tornado. The fluxions of matter that pass through it are constantly changing and being expelled. Nonetheless that tornado can’t exist without fluxions of matter. It requires these to persist in its being. I agree that I need to tighten up this relation between pattern or structure and objects that pass in and out of an object, but the point here isn’t that objects are immaterial ghosts only that these other objects do not constitute the proper being of an object.

    Ironically the reason I reject Latour-Whitehead’s notion of actual occasion is because it seems to me to undermine the possibility of becoming. Because actual occasions are completely concrete and localized in space-time I’m unable to see how it’s possible to have any passage from one actual occasion to another in a society of occasions. Rather it seems to me that when the Latour-Whitehead model is thought through you get a frozen universe where no movement is possible or where movement requires something like a magical leap from one actual occasion to another. I really don’t see how actual occasions can be called processes— though I know this is how Whitehead wants to think them –because minimally a process requires a duration and a movement but Whitehead’s actual occasions have no duration or movement as far as I can tell. They’re completely frozen. It could be that I’m just misreading Whitehead though.

  2. Levi, I was going to make the same point about Whitehead’s use of “process”. He just arbitrarily postulates that actual entities are processes, when in fact they are the exact opposite of processes. I don’t think you’re misunderstanding Whitehead at all.

    Anyway, agreed, it’s a thoughtful and useful post, though I like the actual lecture he’s going to give much better.

  3. Thanks to Levi and Graham for their quick responses (Levi in a comment here, and Graham on his blog, as linked in the pingback above).

    Graham takes me to task for using the word “inhcoherent”; I will concede that he is right, I should have expressed myself better — my having trouble thinking how his position might actually work (a trouble he has, in return, about my position) shouldn’t be described as a lack of internal coherence.

    What the debate really comes down to, and which I think is a real differend between us, one that probably isn’t susceptible to any mediation, has to do with the basic nature of objects and relations. That is to say, I don’t think I could restate myself in terms that Graham and Levi would find more acceptable.What this means, I think, is that — rather than answering them once again, which will lead to their answering me once again, and so on — I need instead to (continue to) engage in the long process of working out my Whiteheadian formulations more richly and more adequately. Reading Graham and Levi, even in disagreement, has been a real stimulus to thought for me, because they forced me to think differently. I have been led by them to ask different questions, ones that I would never have thought of otherwise; and to see the very problems that I have been working through via Whitehead from different angles.

    For instance, Graham’s insistence on a radical disjunction between Whitehead and Deleuze compels me to work through my comparison of the two of them in a different, more careful and more troubled way than I did in y book — even though I do ultimately think that the Whitehead-Deleuze affinity is much closer than Graham is willing to admit. (Again, this is something that I am leaving here just as an assertion, because I haven’t worked it all out sufficiently to my own satisfaction yet).

    So, in summary, my non-response here (since a more explicit response would just be additional recapitulation of what I have written already) is to underline (as both Levi and Graham also do) the difference between hostile criticism that simply seeks to take down an opponent (which might be thought of as the mode of legal argument in a courtroom) and disagreement which, however strenuous, works positively or creatively because (like Graham’s and Levi’s criticisms of me, and I hope also my criticisms of them) it compels one — not to accept the criticisms, but — to delve more deeply into one’s own arguments and presuppositions, so as to articulate them better.

  4. One more very quick comment, replying to Graham’s comment that I only saw after publishing mine.

    I do not agree that Whitehead “arbitrarily postulates that actual entities are processes, when in fact they are the exact opposite of processes.” This seems to me to be the crucial point of our disagreement — Graham and Levi cannot accept that “actual entities” aka “actual occasions” should intrinsically be processes of becoming — they think that anything atomistic, like a Whiteheadian ultimate constituent of existence, must be something like what Graham calls a substance. I think that this assumption is behind why Graham’s notion of objects or substances seems “static” to me (an ascription that Graham of course strenuously rejects).

    Again, I don’t have the time, or the presence of mind, to argue this rigorously at the moment — but I take Graham’s objection, and my indication of my disagreement with it, as being at least clarifications of what we both mean.

  5. I cannot help but think, as it is apparently my unending proclivity, that Spinoza’s position is precisely that which heals the breach.

    Actual objects are NOT substances precisely because their existence depends upon extrinsic causes, the myriad of external factors that brings them into (and keeps them in) being.

    But they are distinct from all else in that they have, in an eternal sense, an “essence” (which does not involve existence). This essence comes into being through a kind of horizontal dependency, and a vertical expression.

    Because this essence does not involve existence, it does not have a substance status, but rather is dependent upon Substance itself, the only thing whose essence DOES involve existence, that which does not depend on external things, and of which each essence is an expression.

    These three aspects keep objects as distinct and non-reducible, but still mereological, as any object is composed of an infinity of parts, and is a part in an infiniy of other objects.

    Yet, because objects are expressions not only of their external causes (on which they depend), but also of their essences, and thus also, ultimately of Substance itself, objects ARE processes. More pointedly, persistence in existence is necessarily a combinative affair wherein changes in the object regulate to some degree its ability to persist amid the dependencies it has on external objects (which also are processes). In Spinoza’s view, not too much unlike Latour’s, objects (as they become assembled in networks of greater or lesser power) acquire or lose BEING. In the human realm, our being fluctuates with the degree of adequacy of our ideas, the power of our body’s ability to act or be acted upon, and our degree of self-determination. To persist is to undergo a process which ultimately is cognitive (panpsychic) and epistemic.

    Only to add.

  6. As a sidenote, it would seem as well that if one is going to contruct a shared space between Deleuze and Whitehead, Deleuze’s Spinozism – the thinker he is least critical of, of all thinkers – would be a most natural point of communication.

  7. Fascinating that this morning I happened to be reading Scu’s Sep 22 CRITICAL ANIMAL post, http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2009/09/nishida-kitaro-as-speculative-realist.html “Nishida Kitaro as speculative realist (of the OOP branch)”, which had popped up in my to-read list, and then, this afternoon we have this eruption of the OOP volcano! Check these excerpts Scu provides from “The Standpoint of Active Intuition” to see if you think there’s any relevance to this “Objects?” discussion:

    “Actually existing space must be the mediation that mutually relates singular thing and singular thing together; it must be the mediation of the continuity of discontinuity… Actually existing space must possess the characteristic of the circular unity that links the before and after of time. Time truly becomes time because it negates time itself; it is because space negates space itself that it becomes true space… The affirmation of the self-negation of time must be space; the affirmation of the self-negation of space must be time. What we call the actually existing world must be a world of the interacting of thing and thing. What interacts must be things that are both utterly independent;.. Yet if that mediation is thought as continuity, there is no mutual interaction… What is merely without relation cannot even be said to interact. Therefore, what is called the mediation of acting thing and thing must be the continuity of discontinuity; it must be in the fact that being is nothing and nothing being”.

    I must confess that, this morning, this sounded like complete gibberish to me; but, now, at the end of the day, it all makes perfect sense! How’s that for a case of dialectical sublation?

  8. interesting!

    We are privileged as humans thinking through human experience in that we can think and express the conceptual prehensions that in part constitute us as societies/actual occassions. We can’t express the conceptual prehensions of other non-human societies except through the poverty of human-centric discourse. When i raised the problem of conceptual prehensions for Graham’s use of Whitehead in his account of Latour’s philosophy, Graham incorporated ‘conceptual prehensions’ into the broader set of ‘prehensions’.

    I think when dealing with the concept of the conceptual prehension is where it is necessary to take a Bergsonian detour to account for the temporality of reflection, memory and relations of futurity. It seems that for something to endure (beyond simple examples of disjunctive heterogeneous temporalities, of something lasting or ‘inhering’ longer than something else within a society), then the contractions of affect/capacities-to-be-affected into memory and of the anticipatory affects of the future anterior need to be accounted for.

    Do have prehensions have memory? The differentially repeated points of contact or ‘punctuality’ of process so that elements of aggregate actual occassions can be repeated in the ‘same’ way when encountering similar compositions of elements suggests there is a memory of sorts.

    I need to read Whitehead again, when nanowrimo is over perhaps.

  9. Re: Graham’s post on his blog, what does he mean by the same person for 90 years? Is that a bad joke? I am not same person I was last month. My name is the same. (Even though some people know me as different names.) Maybe that is what Graham is talking about?

    The implicit Platonicism is obvious!

  10. Rather than an object being “independent of the particles that it contains”, isn’t it a question of particles becoming increasingly dependent on the object they make up, on each added level of complexity? And subsequently a question of what ontological status should be granted to this “folding back” (withdrawal?) to form an internal structure of relations?

    It seems to me that it is this process of becoming an object that makes individual particles redundant, and the object itself irreducible to any of its constituent parts or the flows of energymatter on which it relies (to endure rather than exist?).

  11. Great post. I’ve only read the blogs, not the books on SR and much of it’s over my head, but… on this:

    “To even propose such a thesis of substance, or object-independence — as Harman and Bryant do — is to freeze objects in time, and to rule out the reality of genesis, becoming, and transformation.”

    There’s also a spatial dimension, I think, or a relational dimension, as well. Some objects are elements of larger objects which contain them, or as you out it, some are dependent on others. These contained/dependent objects are simultaneously independent from other objects and an element of other objects which are not independent (that is, there are to characterize them as only contained/dependent or as only independent will lead us to mistakes in at least some contexts). Depending on the frame of reference, relations are more and less relevant to the definition of the object and to how we interact with the object. The independence of objects from each other doesn’t make sense to me w/r/t that. I don’t see why one has to give ontological primacy to independence as a value, no more than one has to select (inter)dependence. I think in some settings one is a more useful understanding, in others, the other.

  12. other possibilities:

    1. it does not endure. The endurance is an illusion turning itself on and off at 1/2 planckTime frequency (0.5 x 10^-44). Because a true square wave is impossible, the subfractional differences between existence and non-existence “smear” spacetime, creating mass and hence the illusion of endurance.

    2. it only endures. time is an illusion per Barbour.

    3. It neither endures, nor disappears – our discussion is simply the product of our brain and is thus a false construction.

    4. It endures as it disappears. Talk to Buddha about that one…

  13. The way that Kant makes the mind responsible for turning raw phenomenae into synthetic a prioris might be one way out of this bind. I liked how he did it.

    Then he salvaged transcendental values by separating the world into phenomenal and noumenal, so that we can only have an intuitive appreciation of the noumenal…

    You know much more about this than I, though.

    I like how he salvages the ethical and the aesthetic by describing the mind as a kind of hardware hardwired to make a certain HUMAN sense of things that allows us to communicate.

    But I wouldn’t know even if Kant would be locatable on Whitehead’s radar.

    And maybe you’ve decided to throw the entirety of Kant overboard in order to go full steam ahead with Whitehead.

  14. objects as independent of themselves seems like accepting half of aristotle and half of plato. objects are interrelated and their composition is hierarchical, at least built on top of each other, but then the theory seems to need some phantasmal overlay that is actually just the relations plus the inherent objects to maintain its independency. in relation to the perceiving being, it depends on a particular energy detecting apparatus to construct its visibility. subatomic particles pierce through atomic particles as if they were a sheet of fabric of its own, but ultimately make up the atomic particles. i think there might be an extremely fundamental hinge missing, that perceiving beings haven’t pointed out thats the intermediary of these constructions. otherwise, we can say that yes with a tweak of our real, sensory appartatus, knowing the scientificity of these objects, it is quite possible to picture them outside of our sensory apparatus, and they would look, act pretty similar but some of the parts would be kind of vague.

  15. I think “independence” is a terrible word to use in this line of argument. As Steven as pointed out it is rife with many metaphysical questions and makes things far too reductionist and essentialist when they shouldn’t be.

    If you are going to to go with the “Object Oriented” metaphor you might as well borrow a better term “encapsulation”.

    From an outside observer an object has properties that can be seen and properties that cannot. Public and private. There is “process” encapsulated inside all objects. A particular object may very well be a collection of lower order objects, and simultaneously serve as part of a higher order system. But hierarchy is not a requirement. And perception of the encapsulated process is certainly not required to understand the behavior. In computer programming it is this very encapsulation that allows so many things to work and be understood “independently” of other objects. In other words rationalized.

    Analyze the electrical impulses in your computer RAM and at the right level it is pure noise. At a higher level there is structure that comprises your software and your data and allows you to do interesting things with a computer.

    Encapsulation is the mystery, veiled, that allows the object to behave in ways not seemingly understood in terms of the parts alone.

    The tree, or the person Steven Shaviro can be understood as both a whole and a collection of parts. The carbon atoms that reside in both might in principle be the same, however it is the internal and encapsulated processes that enable difference.

    My two cents.

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