Still more about objects (sigh)

Levi Bryant says:

The substantiality of an object is not to be found in its qualities, but rather in the ensemble of its powers or capacities.  This entails that we never directly encounter an object because no object ever actualizes the totality of its powers in all the ways in which those powers can become manifest.  Rather, there is always a hidden excess or reserve of potentiality that dwells within the object.  This is why I refer to the qualities of an object as local manifestations of the object. They are actualizations of the object at a particular point in time and under determinate conditions or relations to other objects. It follows then that qualities are acts on the part of an object. Qualities or properties are not something an object has, but are something that an objectdoes when it relates to other objects in the world.

I like a lot of this formulation; in particular, the idea that “there is always a hidden excess or reserve of potentiality that dwells within the object.” However, I reject Bryant’s claim that “this entails that we never directly encounter an object.” To the contrary: we do encounter objects all the time, the entire universe is composed of objects encountering other objects. The fact that these encounters do not involve the manifestation of all the powers or capacities of the objects in question does not mean that the objects are somehow failing to encounter one another, or that there needs to be a split between an object and its manifestations, as Bryant and Graham Harman both maintain.

When a mosquito bites me, I am changed thereby, although this is only to a relatively minor (albeit irritating) degree. When I slap and kill the mosquito, it is changed so extensively as to be altogether obliterated. When the mosquito bites me, it only interacts with a few of my qualities (my skin, my blood, my body heat). And even when I murder the mosquito, I only encounter a few of its qualities: I interfere with its physiological organization, but I do not attain its inner life (and yes, I am inclined to think that a mosquito has something of an inner life; for that matter, I would even maintain that the dead mosquito, or even — as Harman likes to say — a “mindless chunk of dirt” — has something like a perspective, or what Whitehead would call a “subjective form”, a manner in which it prehends or interacts with other entities, and therefore the rudiments of an inner life).

However: I still maintain that there have been actual encounters between the mosquito and myself, both when it nourishes itself by sucking my blood and when I express my irritation by killing it. Yes, the mosquito’s knowledge of me, and my knowledge of it, are both incomplete; we each have particular perspectives from which we perceive and act upon one another. But there is no good reason that I can see why this should entail that (in Harman’s terms) I only encounter the “sensuous” mosquito rather than the real mosquito, or that the mosquito should only encounter the sensuous Shaviro rather than the actual Shaviro. Or, in Bryant’s terms, it is precisely because the mosquito interacts with certain of my powers or capacities or local manifestations, and I interact with certain of its powers or capacities or local manifestations, that we must say that the mosquito and I do encounter one another and interact — this is precisely the way that two entities perceive one another and interact.

In other words: I do not see the point in maintaining, simply because interactions (or relations) are always partial and limited, to therefore hypostasize whatever was not grasped (prehended) in the event of a particular encounter as a shadow object that exists in and of itself apart from the encounter. (Quite ironically, this means that Harman and Bryant are more Kantian than I am — in spite of what I have said on this subject before). The mosquito only apprehends particular aspects of me; but it is “me” as a complete object, rather than just those particular aspects or manifestations of me, that is changed by the encounter. To say that objects do not encounter one another, because they cannot entirely know one another, is to reduce ontology to epistemology, once again.

With all this, I am clearly agreeing with Adrian Ivakhiv and Christopher Vitale against Harman and Bryant. But I would like to remain sensitive to Harman’s proposal for “a cease fire to this friendly shooting war.” For me, the point is this. Harman and Bryant have stimulated my thoughts, even (or especially) when I disagree with them. I need them in order to develop my own ideas, even when these are at variance with theirs. The important thing to do is to avoid the habit (which is inculcated into all of us as academics, I fear) of focusing everything upon the critique of others, instead of positively developing one’s own ideas. I can’t avoid criticizing certain aspects of Harman’s and Bryant’s work, since my own positions have in fact been formulated (in part) in reaction or response to theirs. But I hope I have succeeded in using these criticisms as only a jumping-off point to my own development of ideas that go in a somewhat different direction. The problem is when the criticisms become an end in themselves, so that the war of disagreements becomes more significant than the positive developments of ideas by both parties. Hopefully I have avoided that.

10 thoughts on “Still more about objects (sigh)”

  1. I’ve been following this debate on all of the various blogs (Immanence, Larval Subjects, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Networkologies, and now here). My philosophical knowledge and skill pales in comparison to all of you, but I have to say I’ve found the discussion interesting for several reasons. While I don’t always follow the meanings of some of the concepts or the various nuances of objects versus relations, I find it interesting for the same reason Levi does – it’s no longer a debate about epistemology versus ontology, but is wholly in the realm of ontology. I’ve considered myself a process-relational ontologist with Ivakhiv, but reading what Harman and Bryant have to say makes me less sure. In a sense, I feel that the nuances are so subtle that I’m not sure the matter will ever be settled.
    The other reason I’m interested in it is because of the mode of the debate. First of all, everyone involved seems genuinely friendly, and the debate is more about furthering understanding than about proving one side right or wrong. Also, the fact that its taking place on blogs is unique to me. The blogs allow for a discreteness of argument while maintaining an overall dialogic form. I understand that it may be tiresome to continually respond to one another, and so I understand the desire for a cease fire. But I have to say, from an observer’s perspective, this is one of the most interesting discussions I’ve seen in a while. I’m not engaged in the debate – I’m not on that level yet (if ever) – but I draw ideas from it as I try to work out what an ontological approach means in my field of Anthropology. It’s been inspiring, so thank you and best of luck to all of you who are contributing!

  2. See Graham’s reply, linked in the comment above. I am inclined to say, in counter-reply, that it is precisely because “an object is not a bundle of qualities” (which is one of the things that I have learned from Graham) that the fact that any given object misses many of the qualities of whatever other object it encounters need not mean that the objects are withdrawn from one another. If it were purely a matter of qualities, then I would have to say that the mosquito didn’t really encounter me, since it only prehended a few of my qualities. But since I am not equal to the sum of a bundle of qualities, the fact that the mosquito missed many of my qualities does not mean that the mosquito missed me. Unfortunately, it didn’t miss me; it encountered me directly, and I have an annoying itch to show for it. (Or worse — what if it had given me malaria?).

    I am writing this more for my own clarification, than to continue my argument with Harman. Indeed, it strikes me that what I am saying here is an important argument, or an important consequence and elaboration of my position, that I never even would have conceived, had it not been for being prodded into it by my back-and-forth with Harman.

    I will denounce and attack things that I find hateful, pernicious, or dangerous (i.e. I join others in denouncing the Middlesex authorities’ decision to get rid of their Philosophy program); but that is a totally different thing from arguing, which is only worth doing with someone whose intelligence and point of view I respect.

  3. just a chime:

    “A chair has waited such a long time to be with its person. Through shadow and fly buzz and the floating dust it has waited such a long time to be with its person.
    What it remembers of the forest it forgets, and dreams of a room where it waits — Of the cup and the ceiling — Of the Animate One.”

    —”A Chair,” from The Very Thing that Happens by Russell Edson

  4. well mellisoux’s proposal of bringing back metaphysics after the great destroyers is what i find most interesting. as mentioned above, how it is possible to still work at the side of science, mostly outside of it, to ontologically match up allusions that do seem to fit reality. the idea of universiality, at least difference-but-sameness or basically mike langlons concept of that possibility. how there was 5 different string theories and a 6th, then they were all synthesized into one. it could at least be put into the history of philosophy as hegel’s Idea that runs through all of philosophy. i think the important part here, is to seek an ultimate directionality of the universe after darwin, freud, nietzche, etc. and i do think that current metaphysics is too weak to do that by itself, and is in need of science to possibly decipher whatever that is. for we can all say concepts are just geneaological solidifications and all that, but can we really disregard autonomy and the physicality of science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.