2 February 2010

Merged Road-Foot Object

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:04 am

…any relation must count as a substance. When two objects enter into a genuine relation, even if they do not permanently fuse together, they generate a reality that has all of the features that we require of an object. Through their mere relation, they create something that has not existed before, and which is truly one… Granted, a relation between two objects may last only a brief while. But the same is true of objects that are obviously substances, such as mayflies or the fleeting chemical elements of californium. Durability is not a requirement for objecthood, just as being part of nature or having an exceptionally tiny size is not.”

“Inspired and radical claims,” is how Levi at Larval Subjects recently described this passage from Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics. I remember that while reading the book I found these claims particularly troubling. I was thinking about them again today (or I guess it’s yesterday by now) while I was out running.

I start out walking, one foot or the other constantly maintaining contact with the road. So this ongoing relation between feet and road is itself a substance, an object. Then I start to run. With each stride both feet temporarily leave the ground. Does this mean that, whereas walking constitutes a single object, running creates a new object every time one of my feet hits the road? Or does the act of running constitute an ongoing relation between feet and road even when the feet aren’t actually in contact with the road? Maybe running is an “objectile,” a process with object-like qualities and vice versa, a kind of two-stroke engine moving steadily across the surface even when both “pistons” are up in the air. Or maybe the substance of running includes feet, road surface, and a zone of air extending a few inches above the road surface, with which my feet never lose contact.

As I run I look at a pedestrian walking toward me on the other side of the street. Now I’ve established a relation between my eyes and that person: another new object comes into being! Then my attention is drawn to a tall pine tree: yet another new object! But what about the eyes-pedestrian relational object: it’s gone now, the connection having been severed by shifting my gaze to the evergreen. While looking at the tree I blink my eyes, then open them again. Though my brain maintained continuity of attention on that tree, assuring me that the tree’s existence persists even with my eyes momentarily closed, in fact I could not see the tree during the blink. So did the eyes-tree object extinguish itself with that blink, only to be replaced almost immediately by a nearly identical eyes-tree object?

It seemed to me in reading the book that Graham insists on this proliferation of temporary objects because he’s persuaded that two objects never come into direct relationship with each other. Relations between objects are indirect and vicarious. Relations within objects, however, are direct. In order for my foot to have a relationship with the road, then, a new merged foot-road object must come into being. As subcomponents of this new merged object, foot and road can enter into relations with one another inside the inner “plasm” of this merged temporary foot-road object.

Levi says that this proliferation of temporary merged objects brings a lot of clarity to some persistent conundrums confronting continental philosophy. Maybe so. I must say, though, that it seemed to me while running that my two feet were continually making intermittent, alternating, direct contact with the road. Well actually, the contact wasn’t quite direct: I always wear shoes when I run, intentionally preventing direct (and painful) contact of feet with road. Anyhow, that’s the impression I get while engaged in the activity. I suppose I could teach myself to realize that these impressions are mistaken, just as I’ve taught myself to realize that the sun isn’t really going around the earth even though it looks that way. I could also remind myself that each time I glance toward the sun during the day I’m creating a new temporary eyes-sun object, and when I look away I’m destroying that object. Kinda cool.



  1. A few other things:

    1. Foot, sneaker, sole of sneaker, road. Have you lost contact with the road? Foot/sneaker object. Sneaker/road object. Two objects?
    2. Jump up in the air. Have you lost contact with the road? Is there a void between because there is nothing visible between?
    3. The critique of monism: If everything is one thing, then why is that one thing not moltenly uniform?


    Comment by Asher Kay — 2 February 2010 @ 5:22 am

  2. 1. Foot and sneaker are two objects. Foot/sneaker and sneaker/road would add two more objects. These four are joined by the foot/sneaker/road object. So now there are the five, with two of them going into and out of existence with each stride. Wait, make that 5 X 2: a separate set of objects for each foot.

    2. Jump in the air: foot/sneaker, sneaker/air, foot/sneaker/air. The barrier preventing direct contact between objects must be more (or less) than just invisible space.

    3. I believe the objectology is being offered as an alternative to monism. I’m not sure of Graham’s starting point: perhaps the universe is always-already filled with objects. For Levi there’s a Deleuzian primal scene of absolute difference, which is not to be confused with different-from, which I guess would require an original arche-object from which all subsequent objects split off. We alluded briefly to Badiou yesterday: as I understand it, in the beginning of Badiou’s universe there is a Void of irreducible but inchoate multiplicity from which all things come forth, but instead of objects we get a universe populated by some sort of mathematical entities and subsets. But now I’m getting confused; I’m usually better off with tangible examples like running down the road.


    Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 6:59 am

  3. I just thought of a solution on my walk this morning. So, no two objects can have direct encounters with each other, but parts of an object can directly encounter each other on the inside of an object, right? The universe is an object, right? And while the universe may have an essence that exceeds and is irreducible to its elements and properties, everything in the universe is, well, in the universe, right? Therefore, any two objects can encounter each other directly on the inside of the universe! Problem solved.


    Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 8:19 am

    • I think you just beat out Goldilocks ontology in the “best of week” category.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 February 2010 @ 10:17 am

    • I know, dude’s on fire. What are you eating for breakfast these days, John? And does it ever encounter your small intestine?


      Comment by Carl — 2 February 2010 @ 10:33 am

  4. Thanks fellas, but no doubt I’m missing something about the long history of the philosophical argument that renders my solution laughable. Maybe if I wrap my firewall tightly around myself I won’t be scorched by externally-generated erudition.


    Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    • because he’s persuaded that two objects never come into direct relationship with each other.

      So let him. Who says his ‘being persuading’ amounts to all that much.

      “any relation must count as a substance”

      So how about the one between Harman-philosopher- and philosophy (his or I don’t care whose)? Did they not have a ‘direct encounter’.

      John, that sounds like a wonderful way to suffer depression despite the endorphins stimulated by the running. I think Harman’s philosphy is just as precious as his ‘philosopher’ (his own GrahamHarmanObjectBody.) Absolutely horrible. And you are still obsessing over Harman. I just don’t see what there is in it unless you want to choreograph your running so that you seem like a shining beacon for all passersby. Maybe Mikhail is right about ‘all things Harman’. I know I can’t stand them either.


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 2 February 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    • Maybe OOP just doesn’t deal with assemblages very well. Monism shines in this respect.

      BTW, the “critique of monism” I mentioned above is from Harman. What do you think? Is it more problematic to figure out why there is variation in “the one”, or more problematic to figure out what constitutes a separate object?

      no doubt I’m missing something about the long history of the philosophical argument that renders my solution laughable

      Oh, absolutely no doubt ;).


      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 February 2010 @ 1:26 pm

      • Oh, absolutely no doubt ;).

        But my question is can we go on living without finding this thing that would teach us how we can never have a direct relationship with anything? Can we just assume it’s one of those famous ‘gaps’? Because it is hard to see what all this stupid flattening of everything is all about. It is like getting little stickers and labels put on every single things or moment or memory or activity one ever does. It’s pretty dreary, you know. And can the dreary be the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Enquiring minds don’t want to know all that much. It begins to seem like such much ado about nothing.


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 2 February 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    • I vowed awhile back to stop ontologizing, didn’t I? I have to keep reminding myself: let these ontologies morph into fictional distortions of themselves; stop trying to crash a party that I want to leave as soon as I walk in the door. Still, I find that while running and walking my thoughts tend to find their own path. Hopefully it’s not a case of the dog returning to his vomit, as the Bible so colorfully describes obsession. Tonight I’ll watch Groundhog Day, which might get me back on the fictional track.

      Did you make the lime pie last night, Quantity?


      Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 1:42 pm

      • Aha, so sweet of you to ask, no, I’m going to make it today, because I had forgotten the evaporated milk, not having enough indirect relation to it while I was in the store. What a fucking hoot. I have everything else, but we had the remains of this Lane Cake (a Southern Xmas cake with Whiskey frosting, but is good anytime) left, so decided to finish that. Glad you reminded me, as I want to possess that object within the next hour, as I deposit another object in the bank, and get new deliria of excitement as I realize that the ATM is EXACTLY of the level as all sensual pleasure. and I do mean, that since I’ve become a Harmanite, I almost even prefer the beauty of a uniform ATM and operating it with quiet observation of my fingers and the slight difference in buttons pushed from one machine to the other, oh yes, I like this much better than that disgusting sexual pleasure I indulged in last night, BUT…that was almost as good as the ATM will be in 45 minutes (are the 45 minutes also an ‘object’?) Jesus, I hate this shit. And YOU’RE too good for it too!


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 2 February 2010 @ 1:51 pm

      • Not evaporated milk, but sweetened condensed milk.


        Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 1:56 pm

      • Will correct my indirect relationship as directed…


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 2 February 2010 @ 1:58 pm

      • This was a powerful object, and I’m not being sarcastic. Right now I’m engaged in various things and objects which would ordinarily preclude doing this except when I have company (although we’ll use if Friday and some will be left Monday, i imagine), so it broke a spell (is a spell an object, a real object, an ‘acceptable and respectable imaginary object like a unicorn’, is it as real as an anti-depressant and realer than the depression which caused the need for Prozac or whatever, or just a goddam object? meaning a ‘camp’ or ‘inferior’ object?) along with some other indirect relationships on the phone, which got the cathexes directed in a more straight line way. Flavourwise excellent, although I wasn’t thinking about the grating side that would have been needed for this–I always use the middle one for citrus peel that I’m going to put in cakes that stay in the oven much longer than this. So it didn’t get the green color, but I had put extra juice, so that made the object a nice variation as per Ellen Langer’s ‘mindful learning’ exercises (which are surprisingly useful, and she figured out how to use it even in her own inferior baking), therefore not authentically Key Lime (anyway used regular limes), but the slight crunch of the zest is good as well. Delicious, but I’ll use the smallest grater blades next time, and this can be done in just a few object-minutes…what Carl said about the eventual destiny of the Jello and cherry, of course: It turns into shit (and piss, too, I guess), which is a perfect example of ‘others mixing’ and ‘having so direct an emulsive relationship’ that is pointless for Harman to keep talking about ‘indirect relationships only’. He is simply interested in appearing respectable (and Carl seems to want to avoid the Jello destiny, although I haven’t attended closely enough to his post, due to my engagement with such objects as letters in envelopes, new gloves at stores, etc., but academics are known to watch their fall into disrepute due to ‘getting down’ too much with ‘unrespectable objects’–and don’t tell ME we’ve gotten to the point where shit is discussed in classrooms in a quiet and measured way!


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 3 February 2010 @ 12:50 pm

      • Thank you for your support, QB – actually I’ve discussed shit in class on many occasions, and am always on the lookout for more. There was for example the seminar on the topic of discipline in which I used Laporte’s History of Shit; and when I teach the first half of the world history survey, I always lead with shit management as an essential part of the transition to settled urbanization, and an example of the development of complex divisions of labor. To get a feel for this, may I recommend the online virtual tour of the Johnstown wastewater treatment plant. Students find it fascinating, or at least vivid and memorable. No doubt this is all evidence of my fall into disrepute, or perhaps failure to emerge therefrom….


        Comment by Carl — 3 February 2010 @ 1:40 pm

      • lol, will do later, Carl, after some errands. i was just musing on related oddities about shit, as in religion, when in various Christian texts, you’ll hear about how God’s spirit is in the ‘smallest blade of grass’ and the ‘tiniest grain of sand’? I was never sure whether it followed from the ‘sand’ into the ‘shit’, or whether that was a distinctly different order of objects. I’ll look at your link in couple of hours.


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 3 February 2010 @ 1:55 pm

      • Persons are other objects independent of social systems.

        Is a ‘person’ the same kind of object as a ‘body’. Doesn’t the ‘body of a person’ already separate it from ‘the person’. The ‘person’ is ‘independent of social systems’? So how can it be that a ‘person’ is only a ‘body?’ I don’t see how either ‘person’ or ‘body’ is independent of social systems, at least not for large amounts of time.


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 3 February 2010 @ 8:24 pm

      • I’m pleased that the pie turned out well for you, Quantity. Surely it is superior both aesthetically and ontologically to the jello salad with maraschinos.


        Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 2:18 pm

      • I don’t think I mentioned this before, John, but about four weeks ago, I started baking pies. No idea why — one night, it just came into my mind to bake a pie. I have been doing mostly apple pies, because I am into the various “breeds” of apples, but I also do a lot of weird things like peach-strawberry.

        I started out with pre-made crusts, trying to perfect the filling. My next step is to try to make a better crust than I can buy.


        Comment by Asher Kay — 3 February 2010 @ 9:55 pm

      • There are some good English tarts I do all the time, like Bakewell is very good, and also there’s a Mint Tart with Marmalade that is excellent. These are especially good breakfast things. The best are French Strawberry Tarts with the cookie dough pastry like you find in Julia Child, and Tarte Tatin is also very good for your Apple Number.

        I still think a physical quarter is more like a ‘poor sculpture’ or a ‘tin can’ than it is like a constitution or lease, though. But this is because I am not a ‘technically specialized philosopher’, which by the way (since I’m dangling things like crazy in this dense little configuration here), is not unlike the ‘ivory tower composers’ of the 12-tone system who are not very interested in such as the Grateful Dead, although it is true that at one point Boulez was fascinated by Frank Zappa.

        Haven’t you thought about this silly ‘elitism’ talk, John? I am fed up with it, and hadn’t realized I don’t have to be on the goddam defensive all the time about it. Movies are about the only thing I can think of (till television) that are across-the-board class-wise. All these anti-elitists have read Joyce and Sartre and Genet and Mallarme, and yet these are all ‘forgiven’ their elitism, while in the performing arts, most of our great philosophes want to talk about pop music and TV shows. Arpege and I have suffered innumberable attacks by these personages, although she has deserved it and I haven’t. They also seem to forget that Freud had a huge collection of precious art OBJECTS.

        But all of the trendy analyses of ‘Antichrist’ and suchlike are much more elitist than just going to a Verdi opera. This can be easily explained by the terms ‘Illusions of Socialist Utopia’.


        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 3 February 2010 @ 10:28 pm

      • You mean am I sick of not knowing the books and theories that others more knowledgeable than I throw into discussions, or am I sick of people throwing these elite products in there in the first place? Or is it more that people who talk a good egalitarian game are in fact elitists themselves, and overtly so? I’m guessing it’s the last-mentioned. In prior conversations, Quantity, I’ve acknowledged being an elitist socialist who wants the government to subsidize high-culture artifacts instead of letting free-market forces dictate what sorts of inane and mediocre crap soars to the top of the charts while the real creators starve or bus tables. I also think that Marxism and communism in the US at least is a preoccupation reserved almost exclusively to the intellectual elite. In France it was different: plenty of old blue-collar workers were numbered among the party membership. Maybe England as well.


        Comment by john doyle — 4 February 2010 @ 10:33 am

  5. http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/

    The problem object does seem to be somewhere between the foot/shoe object and the shoe/road object, although we’ll need at least a theory of objectiles to adequately dynamicize where exactly the problem object appears.


    Comment by Carl — 2 February 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    • I’m an incurable heel-striker, so I guess I should keep my shoes on. Somebody better get that retro-encabulator fired up if we’re going to make much more headway.


      Comment by john doyle — 2 February 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  6. Here’s a recent comment from Ian Bogost at Larval Subjects:

    “The molten core of objects (real objects) do not relate, and thus require the sensual vicar. Here’s an appropriately Iowan analogy. Imagine a jello salad. Inside the gelatin is a maraschino cherry. A spoon enters the gelatin. The spoon and cherry relate, but those relations are mediated by the gelatin. Now abstract a level and understand the salad as mere object, the cherry a real object and the gelatin a sensual object (nevermind the spoon for now). The encounter between spoon and gelatin is unlike that between spoon and cherry. The cherry grasps spoon only via gelatin, and vice versa. In my application of Graham’s theory of vicarious causation, if we take the salad as an object, then I take the sensual relation itself as an object too, with its own sensual and real properties. Thus, the spoon/salad relation is also an object, which, say, with which the hand holding the spoon enters into yet different relations. Further, the human bearing the hand, or salad bearing the cherry, has its own perceptions (that’s what I’ll call them) of the spoon, and those perceptions themselves are object just like any other.”

    Reading Bogost’s comment this morning cheered me right up. He makes observations about jello ontology similar to my own about foot ontology. The main difference I see is that Bogost really seems to take it seriously, without a hint of irony or parody. I feel like I’ve joined the democracy of ontologists. This might well be a major appeal of the object-oriented approach: low barriers to entry. As we observed toward the end of the prior post’s discussion, Brassier makes it a lot tougher to join in.

    I woke up thinking about whether I find it depressing to engage with object-oriented ideas, and I decided that I don’t. I’ve occasionally prefaced my philosophical observations with caveats like “hey, it’s just a blog.” Posts like this one are fun to think about, to write, to discuss. It gets less fun when I start thinking that I too could become a serious player, or that I would want to.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 6:25 am

    • I agree with you about the conditions under which this is fun and uplifting. In that spirit I’m perplexed by Ian’s analogy and wonder if it will pass official muster. First of all, the relationship he describes between spoon, jello and cherry is only arbitrarily ‘vicarage’, and has a long philosophical history of being discussed instead as ‘mediation’ (the jello mediates the spoon and cherry). So I’d need to know why we need vicarage rather than mediation to understand this situation. Second, the whole analogy is a red herring because the spoon seems to encounter the jello directly, so ignoring that to essentialize the jello as vicar of the spoon/cherry relation just seems to miss the point. Finally, at a critical moment of the process the spoon fully penetrates the jello and does indeed come into direct contact with the cherry, unmediated by jello. So we’re back at the question of why we can’t call this a direct contact and need to speculate about sealed molten cores.


      Comment by Carl — 3 February 2010 @ 8:28 am

    • Oh, and then there’s the part where we put jello and cherry into our mouths and start chewing. Does the molten core of the cherry burn our tongues? When does the mashup of cherry and jello officially stop being cherry object, jello object, tooth object and tongue object and become something else? How much sense does it make to describe digestion and incorporation in terms of vicarage? Is there anything philosophically interesting left of the jello and cherry when we’re on the toilet a day later? I’m flush with excitement just thinking about it.


      Comment by Carl — 3 February 2010 @ 9:24 am

  7. Bogost is a ludologist, which ought to give one pause about his philosophical attitude. Certainly he takes games seriously: does he regard objectology as a kind of game? I.e., is it possible to configure a gameworld comprised entirely of insular objects and their vicarious interactions? That’s sort of what it feels like, doesn’t it Carl, when we try to play this game? We’ve previously alluded to the distinction between procedural and object-oriented programming languages on the one hand and process- versus object-oriented ontologies on the other hand. Maybe Bogost is trying to be a two-handed vicar. Surely if he applies a robust modernist aesthetic to his ludic interventions he would build his object-oriented ontology game in an object-oriented programming language.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 10:09 am

  8. Hi John,

    Interesting discussion here. I think you have things a little backwards here with respect to what problem I see this ontology solving. The dominant consensus within French thought for the last few decades is relationism. This is the thesis that objects are their relations and nothing but their relations to everything else. Within French inflected social and political philosophy this generated a set of troubling questions pertaining to change and the possibility of a revolutionary politics: If we are nothing but our social relations then how is it possible to ever act against the social system to which we belong? Why would this be difficult to explain or theorize? Because we are our social relations and therefore are thoroughly conditioned by these relations such that any act we engage in merely reproduces the existing system and is at the behest of that system. This was one melancholy solution that arose out of the Althusserian school of structural Marxism.

    If folks coming largely out of that tradition are all excited about Badiou’s theory of the subject and the event, Zizek’s subject and act, Ranciere’s “part of no part”, and so on, then this is because these political theories simultaneously accept the thesis that elements of a social system are their relations and purport to locate a void or unconditioned point within structure that might allow for transformative action.

    My claim is that this theory of the social is based on bad mereology and ontology. What I find interesting in OOO is not that every relation generates an object, but that objects are independent of their relations such that they are never reducible to their relations. In other words, the problem solved here is the exact opposite of the one you suggest. Here the nature of the question changes. The question is no longer that of how to locate an unconditioned point or a void within social structure, but rather how one distinct set of objects (persons, groups) can act on and change another type of objects (social systems). This question becomes possible because groups and persons are objects in their own right that are independent of social structure. Hopefully that is somewhat clear.

    I’m surprised to hear Asher suggest that OOO has difficulty thinking about assemblages. Rather, it seems to me that assemblages are a problem for monism. Monism argues that everything is related to everything else. As a consequence, it is committed to the thesis that there is only one assemblage (the universe as a whole). What it is unable to think are assemblages (the plural) because it is unable to think any object as independent of any other object. This is precisely what OOO, by contrast, allows us to think.

    Like you, I am uncomfortable with the thesis that every relation forms an object. Here I think some criteria is needed for relations that do generate new objects and relations that do not. In my view, the criteria for this is to be found in the concept of power or attractor. The thesis here would be that in order for a relation to be generative of a new object the relation must generate new powers or attractors. If no new powers emerge in the relation, then we do not have a new or distinct object. If new powers do emerge, we do have a new object. There are all sorts of interesting considerations here. First off, it’s possible that relations are non-reciprocal. For example, it does appear that in relating to the earth you are a distinctly new entity because you have powers you wouldn’t possess in other contexts. Were you on Mars or in outer-space your powers would be very different. Within the framework of the criteria for objecthood I’m proposing, you are thus a different object in outer-space than you are on Earth. But is the relation reciprocal? Does the Earth become a new entity as a result of relating to you? This spins on whether the Earth acquires new powers or capacities as a result of that relation. I’m inclined to answer negatively.


    Comment by larvalsubjects — 3 February 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    • I’d say that the idea an assemblage requires that the parts be separable. So there would be no assemblages in monism, unless you defined it more weakly. Monism might have objects, but every object would be a universe.

      Monism brings structure/form to the fore, which I like. There’s also no problem with things having to be different things from moment to moment.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 3 February 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    • Was it you, Levi, who noted that a typical tactic for sidestepping issues is to claim that the interlocutor failed to understand the topic? Anyhow, I confess that I didn’t read your whole post as carefully as I might have, extracting from it the parts that interested me at the moment. It is surprising that Graham’s constant spawning of objects would be necessary in order to arrive at a political theory that acknowledges the reality of individuals and groupings smaller than whole societies or classes. In Graham’s book the political implications of object-spawning seemed pretty far off-screen, so clearly you’ve needed to take the object-oriented ideas in directions that suit your interests. With respect to my run, I could see no political implications whatsoever of the temporary objects that my shod feet were generating as they hit the pavement.

      I think it’s a good move to clarify the sorts of relations that spawn objects, Graham’s seeming altogether too fecund for my tastes. I presume that “new powers” means that the object must be able to effect some sort of difference in the world. A structuralist might acknowledge this criterion as defining an autonomous agent but deny that individuals possess this agency, deny that they have any power other than that afforded it by the structure. One could content that the earth acquires new powers through their transformation into artifacts, so if I fashion a shelter or a book out of the stuff of the world then maybe I’ve bestowed new powers onto the world.


      Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 7:19 pm

      • Perhaps surprising, but the devil’s always in the details in philosophy:

        It is surprising that Graham’s constant spawning of objects would be necessary in order to arrive at a political theory that acknowledges the reality of individuals and groupings smaller than whole societies or classes.

        This is exactly what came out of the Althusserian school (the idea of the individual as an ideological illusion and all groupings as just local manifestations of broader structural relations), and arguably continued in its own way across thinkers like Foucault and Butler. I should say, however, that I didn’t realize it was Graham you guys were discussing. I thought you were referring to the claims I was making. This is what I had gathered from your final paragraph. While Graham and I share certain positions our ontologies are divergent on a number of points. At any rate, the theory you advocate is going to guide the sorts of questions you ask, so I don’t think abstract metaphysical questions are remote from these questions of politics.

        By “power” I am indeed referring to capacity or ability, which, in turn, refers to the ability to produce differences of one sort or another. I think this gets to the core of the issue:

        A structuralist might acknowledge this criterion as defining an autonomous agent but deny that individuals possess this agency, deny that they have any power other than that afforded it by the structure.

        A structuralist wouldn’t acknowledge what I’m claiming because there’s nothing other than the social structure. For the Althusserian individuals literally are ideological illusions. Nor is there such a thing, in my view, as an agent without agency. To be an agent or an object is to have a power of acting. But here I’m being pedantic. As I think I put it in my initial post, the issue is how one object can act on another object. The social system is, in my view, one object or an object in its own right populated by its own structure and powers. Persons are other objects independent of social systems. The question then becomes similar to the problem of detecting neutrinos in physics. The problem with neutrinos is that they pass right through everything else so we haven’t devised a way to detect them. This is the problem with respect to social and political change as well. Persons and groups are like neutrinos from the standpoint of social systems. They simply don’t register to the system in most circumstances. An analogy would be the relation between cells and the body. In most circumstances cells simply don’t act on the body they compose. However, cells can fundamentally transform the body under certain circumstances, turning it in to something very different. An unfortunate example would be cancer. Cancer is a phenomenon in which the cells of the body have “asserted” themselves as independent objects, developing themselves in their own way.

        So the question is what are the conditions under which the sub-sets (persons, groups) composing a larger set (a society) introduce differences appreciable enough to transform the structure of that larger system itself. With the structuralists I agree that when we talk about a society we’re talking about a network of relations, how it is organized, how it is functioned. My problem is that they restrict the domain to this level or strata alone. This is why they’ve gotten themselves in such knots about how a subject is possible. When it is conceded that objects other than elements or positions in a social structure exist, the nature of the question changes. Of course, what we want to avoid in posing these sorts of questions is a situation like the cancerous cells of the body.

        I’ve never suggested that it’s not possible to misinterpret another’s position. I have said that often one sees this sort of charge emerge in certain circumstances when one wishes to avoid a particular argument at all costs. Usually this charge is accompanied by a failure to explain just how the position has been misinterpreted, and often this sort of charge has a lot to do with encounters between heterogeneous language games or Kuhnian paradigms. We can imagine the Aristotlean saying to Galileo “you just don’t understand Aristotle!” What the Aristotlean can’t even see is that the Galilean is no longer engaged in the Aristotlean language game but is working within a very different framework of questions and problems. I’m not suggesting that OOO is some sort of paradigm shift, but it could be said that it is a different paradigm or language game. I think a similar conflict emerges between different orientations of philosophy as in the case of analytics and continentals. But yes, a critic of Hume can get Hume wrong. Have you ever found yourself in a discussion with an advocate of another position, however, (perhaps in politics) where you’ve understood the positions, the claims, you’ve outlined why you find them mistaken and yet the person still keeps insisting that “you’ve got it wrong! you just don’t understand! if only you understood Reaganomics you would understand how it solves all these problems you’re bringing up!” There’s a point where hermeneutics (interpreting a position so as to represent it accurately) passes over into genuine differences and where it’s no longer simply a matter of not understanding. All the advocate of Reaganomics is saying here is “you don’t endorse Reaganomics! If you endorsed Reaganomics you wouldn’t think these things are problems!” The question here, and I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule, is that of how to distinguish between genuine differences and misinterpretations. Kant, I think, didn’t understand Hume. Had he understood Hume he would have been a Humean, not a Kantian. But Kant’s “lack of understanding” (and I’m being glib here, I think he understood just fine) was a genuine philosophical disagreement about the nature of mind, knowledge, and the origins of knowledge. What really irritates me in some of the more academic philosophical discussions is the idea that Kant should have written an entire book on all aspects of Hume’s work prior to writing the Critique. Kant, I think, identified the core of the Humean position, its supporting arguments, and showed why they’re mistaken.


        Comment by larvalsubjects — 3 February 2010 @ 8:15 pm

  9. QB,

    Yes, I was speaking loosely. I suspect that “person” is a purely social category. You write:

    I don’t see how either ‘person’ or ‘body’ is independent of social systems, at least not for large amounts of time.

    By “independent” I mean that a body cannot be reduced to its status as a node in social relations. It can be detached from them. That’s all I need for my ontological claim. Maybe a contrast will help here. Take the phoneme [b] in the English language. A linguist will tell you– a structural linguist anyway –that [b] is not an independent object and cannot be detached from its relations to all other phonemes composing the language. The identity of [b] is purely differential, which is to say that it is its difference from all other phonemes in the language. Consequently, [b] doesn’t exist in its own right at all, but is rather a relation. In fact, for the structural linguistic we shouldn’t refer to [b] as a phoneme at all, but should instead speak of the relation b|p as the phoneme where neither term exists independent of the other. Put otherwise, the being of [b] and the being of [p] is comprised entirely of this internal relation. The structural linguists arrived at the thesis that the minimal criteria for a phoneme is this sort of internal differential relation on the grounds that the simple substitution of one side of the relation for another can produce a change in meaning in a “seme” or meaningful unit. For example: [b]ale and [p]ale. I apologize if I’m rehearsing things that you’re already familiar with here. The point is that the language consists only of these internal relations such that the entity has no being apart from these internal relations.

    This is how the structuralist social theorists are thinking about the nature of the social as well. The social refers to any domain where the being of the elements belonging to the social are purely relational and where these relations are entirely internal. Thus, for example, my being as a professor and as a U.S. citizen fits this criteria. These are relational characteristics and the nature of these relations is internal. Professors can’t be professors apart from students, educational institutions, certain governmental institutions, etc. “Professorness” is not a quality of a discrete entity, but is a position within a relational structure or network. Likewise with citizenship.

    So everything here spins on the difference between internal and external relations. Internal relations are completely bound up in a structure, system, or network such that they can’t exist independent of those relations. External relations are real, to be sure, but the entities that are related can be detached from one another and still be those entities. When I made loose reference to “persons” earlier, I was making the claim that these entities are only externally related to social systems. That is, they can be separated from them and are, in many respects, separate from them. This is precisely the move that the early structural Marxists denied because they began with the premise that everything belonging to the social is internally related to the social such that it is literally nothing apart from that network. Apologies again if I’m repeating things here that you’re deeply familiar with. Your question helps here as it leads me to make explicit what I’m presupposing in my own criticism.


    Comment by larvalsubjects — 3 February 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    • No, that’s interesting, but please, no apologies, as with Asher. i’m hardly ‘deeply familiar’ with any of this, and never expected to even be stimulated to ask even a half-assed question. Anyway, I only get apologies from people who don’t need to apologize to me, and never from the ones who do!


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 3 February 2010 @ 9:02 pm

      • Hey, you called me Asher! Thanks – that makes me happy :)


        Comment by Asher Kay — 3 February 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  10. The comment thread is getting convoluted, so I’m dropping down to the bottom of the stack.

    I was messing with you, Levi, about the dodge of “you didn’t understand the issue.” Probably both of us were too quick in our reading: I said that maybe Graham’s fecund object-spawning resolved various theoretical issues in continental philosophy, but as for me and my running, no. And it seems you agree that this willy-nilly creation and destruction of objects implicit in Graham’s theory seems a bit much. And in his original context Graham was invoking the creation of new composite objects to account for how relations between separate objects can take place, namely by merging into a new object and having relations inside that new object. This is my post, even if it was spawned by my interaction with your post, and politics was about the last thing from my mind when I wrote it.

    Returning to politics though, object-oriented ontology has been accused of enabling the individualism that underpins neoliberalism. Surely there are extreme political philosophies which contend that only individuals exist and that larger social structures are illusory, just as there are extremes that contend the opposite. Political views that grant reality only to entities that exert power bear certain similarities to each other, regardless of the level of aggregation at which that power is presumably vested. I get that your ontology recognizes power at many interconnected levels, not just at the level of individual humans. Fine.

    We’ve had similar discussions about structural versus individual agency among language-users. From a continental structural standpoint the language in a sense speaks the individual. This sort of schema didn’t have so much influence in American psycholinguistics as it did on the continent, so overturning it wasn’t really an issue. The competing American schools of behaviorism, deep grammatical structure, cognitivism, and usage-based language all presumed that the individual as linguistic agent. So too in non-Marxist politics. I suppose the issue is whether object-orientedness brings individual agency into a Marxist political theory in a way that’s different from constructs adopted from various forms of liberalism.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    • I guess I’ve never gotten the “OOO supports neo-liberalism argument”. Here I get a delicious bit of revenge against some of my more materialist comrades by pointing out that this conclusion only follows if you adopt a folk ontological conception of what constitutes an object. Classes, groups, social systems, etc., are all objects in my book because they all have their own specific powers and internal organizations distinct from other objects. The idea that OOO leads to a valorization of individuals as understood by neo-liberalism can only arise if one is ignoring the mereology OOO proposes. Of course, all this should be taken with a grain of salt. Somewhere or other Graham recently crowned me with the title of being the “most political of the OOO theorists.” So as you pointed out in your initial rejoinder, they can’t be guilty of my own obsessions.


      Comment by larvalsubjects — 3 February 2010 @ 9:43 pm

    • “I was messing with you, Levi, about the dodge of ‘you didn’t understand the issue.’”

      Hey, that’s *my* schtick.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 3 February 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  11. See, something weird is happening to the objects in this list. I just wrote comment 10 to appear after comment 17, but that’s not where it landed. We’ll see where this one ends up: I’m expecting it to be 18…


    Comment by john doyle — 3 February 2010 @ 9:16 pm

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