Withdrawal and Representation

I read Larval Subjects pretty regularly, so although I’m increasingly preoccupied by education-related issues lately I do keep updated on object-oriented ontology as it develops. I’m not well versed in philosophy, so I interpret the OOO stuff more in empirical and a psychological terms. Bearing those caveats in mind, I wanted to jot down my reactions to what in a recent post Levi Bryant termed “the two core claims of OOO”:

“First, OOO claims that objects are radically withdrawn from one another… OOO vigorously rejects the thesis that other objects are anything like they are perceived by us or any other object; and this for the precise reason that objects are withdrawn.”

I keep trying to understand why this theory should be deemed a form of realism. If there’s no reason to assert that an object is “anything like” the way it manifests itself in interactions with humans or with any other object in the universe, then what can philosophers possibly say about what objects “really” are? OOO is a sort of apophatic theory of objects: what we can say about real objects is only what they are not. The rationale for this core claim seems tautological: we can’t know what objects are really like because they are withdrawn. So if a scientist or a poet or a patch of dirt claims to have discovered something about what a rose is really like, the OOOlogist can discount this claim immediately: “Your claim is impossible because we already know that we cannot come to know anything about what objects are really like.” Whatever is discovered about an object is by definition disallowed as not really getting at the “real” object. Why is this realism again?

“Second… OOO argues that objects relate to one another through translation. Translation is a radically different relation than representation. If this is the case, then this is because there is no translation without transformation. Where representation is based on metaphors of mirroring where there is purported to be a resemblance between the reflection and the reflected, translation is a relation of difference. A translation is not a faithful representation of an original, but is rather a transformation of the original in terms of the system specific structure of the entity doing the translation.”

Again, I have a hard time seeing how this position can be regarded as realism. Further, I don’t understand why translation is radically different from representation. Levi says that representation, like a mirror image, is a relation of similarity, whereas translation is a relation of difference. But a mirror image is both similar to and different from the object it reflects, isn’t it? The object may be 3D, its mirror image is 2D; the object doesn’t occupy the same physical space as the mirror where its reflection appears; the mirror inverts the object’s orientation around the y-axis, so that what’s on the left of the object appears on the right of the mirror image; and so on. Still, despite all these differences, some important sameness is preserved in the mirror’s reflection of the object. A translation too is both different from and similar to the original. If I translate a phrase from French into English, the sounds of the words are very different, the relative positions of nouns and adjectives may be inverted, and so on, but the meaning of the two sentences are more or less the same in both languages.

Now move on to human interactions with objects. If I see a red rose, the redness is a sort of perceptual translation of light waves reflected off the rose’s surface, transmitted to the sensory apparatus of my visual system and from there to my brain. The rose isn’t intrinsically red in the way I perceive it — my perception of the rose is different from the rose itself. However, the redness I perceive does correspond to or represent or translate something about the real rose, some array of information or stream of waveicles that exists independently of the eyes and brain by which I perceive the redness. Through the sequential and radical transformations from waveicle to rods and cones to nervous system to neural network to consciousness,  there is a sameness that persists between the rose and my perception of the rose. Like the mirror image, visual perception captures sameness within difference. If there wasn’t a persistent sameness between the object and my perception of it, then we’d be back in the non-realism of a world in which a translation isn’t anything like that which it translates and a reflection isn’t anything like what it reflects.


  1. Pingback: Social Technology
  2. ktismatics says:

    Thanks Social Tech. Since you’re writing a novel about social technology in schools I expect you might find some of my recent and upcoming posts about survey data and schools interesting as well.


  3. ktismatics says:

    I was frankly surprised that radical withrawal was the first tenet of OOO. In commenting to myself on this post from last week I thought there were significan differences of opinion within OOO on this point. Graham Harman has always been the strong withdrawer, whereas Levi seemed like a weak withdrawer. My understanding of Levi’s position was that, since an object never manifests all of its potential in any particular material manifestation of itself, then it’s the unmanifest potential is what’s withdrawn. By implication, the potentials that are manifest aren’t withdrawn. This weak withdrawal seems compatible with my understanding of Heidegger’s discussion of the hammer: when it’s present as a tool then its sheer physical objecthood is withdrawn; when the hammer breaks the physicality becomes manifest while the tool-potential recedes. To me the implication is that the hammer is simultaneously a tool and a raw physical object and a machined artifact and something with a particular molecular composition all at the same time, even if not all of these aspects are manifest at any given time. The OOOlogist can then distinguish realism from materialism in this particular way: materialism considers objects manifesting only some of their potentials; realism considers an object as comprising all the potentials, even the materially unmanifest ones.

    Maybe Levi is rethinking his position, returning closer to Graham’s strong withdrawal. Probably this is because, as Levi has observed, potentials all have to do with interactions with other objects rather than the essence of an object independent of all interactions. As I said in the post, though, this move seems like a withdrawal from realism, which is what I’d thought about Graham’s position previously. Instead of resolving the Correlation whereby humans can never transcend or compensate for their humanity in grasping the real, this radical withdrawal makes the human-object Correlation merely a subset of a universal Correlation in which no objects ever encounter any other object’s reality except in an interactive context that cannot be escaped. This seems to me like Strong Correlationism to me.

    I hadn’t zeroed in on the second tenet quite as clearly. Translation seemed an odd choice to characterize all the possible ways in which two objects might affect each other: collision, solution, chemical bonding, destruction, love, etc. I understood that part of the intent was to leave space for emergent properties resulting from an interaction, properties that aren’t characteristic of the objects entering into the interaction. But here again we see a move toward a “strong” version of emergentism: translation is the creation of difference, such that the samenesses preserved in the translation are discounted nearly to the point of complete denial. This begins to sound like certain POVs that Meillassoux characterized in his book: if two billiard balls bump together, maybe the resulting translation could produce a merged big ball, or spawn a third ball, or disappear the balls altogether while spontaneously generating a strong scent of wet dog fur.


    1. Quantity of Butchness says:

      Jo9hn–in choosing their ‘core tenets’, you have intentionally or not zeroed in the essential superfluity of this bullshit. What Derrida said in ‘A Taste for the Secret’ already covers the withdrawing mechanisms if seen in their most severe forms. And even those can be argued against. It’s just precious invention, and it’s mostly wishful, there is nothing behind it: What they need to do, which may be what you are trying to approach by using the word ‘realism’. I think that’s not exactly a sharp word, but shows you probably have some doubts about this silliness while still taking it seriously. What this shit requires IS finally empirical experience, and neither of these ‘professional withdrawers’ has any to speak of.

      Sorry, but your post has finally concluded my interest in this worthless crap, and proven that my bare touch of its pretentious and totally worthless surface had always been a most judicious use of my time–I mean, since so little of it was wasted on this, even if it was on only slightly more worthwhile things, a lot of which were merely slightly less bloodless (but not as much as I thought) ‘professional withdrawers.’

      The grotesquerie is that any of this could be taken seriously anymore, esp. its presentation as something new. After all, though, they did discover the oil spill as an object, now that was impressive. I have no respect for either of these great ‘thinkers’, esp. Levi, whose ideas I find much stupider than I ever gave him full credit for–and that’s not for just deleting a non-rabid comment from me. His writing I find NECROTIC, to use a word Dominic used to use, and before that my dentist, when I wasn’t going to get my gums dug at frequently enough. Really, just mediocre and useless this crap.


  4. ktismatics says:

    You know, Quantity, I kept waiting for one of the real blogosophers who hate the OOOlogy to come out and explain clearly why it sucks. Instead it was always handwaving and insinuation: of course this is bullshit, some day soon one of the big dogs of philosophy will bury it once and for all. That day still hasn’t come, at least in the small circles in which I circulate. I also think that a lot of the online critics of Bryant and Harman are philosophical idealists who would reject empirical realism as well as this newfangled speculative variants. Maybe they’re not fully up to the task, or they just can’t be bothered to do a detailed rebuttal. It’s also pretty evident that the real philosophers aren’t going to engage with us in musing about OOO here at Ktismatics, so we’re left to our own devices in coming to grips with it or not by our own lights and passions and so on.

    So yes, the two Core Tenets expose for me something sort of theological and magical about OOO. Objects always-already withdraw, sort of like spiritual gods and souls; objects that interact spontaneously generate emergent differences, sort of like miracles and resurrections. As I’ve said before, I like this sort of thinking within the context of fiction. Why do I keep coming back to this folly (as a dog returns to its vomit, to quote the Proverb)? Who knows? Partly because it’s what’s going on in the blogs and not much else is.

    You had a comment deleted at Larval Subjects? I expected this post to get a “pingback” over there, which is what usually happens when one blog post makes a link to another. Maybe the pingback got deleted? If so, it’s either because my post is too critical or, more likely, I keep bad company over here. Or maybe it’s just a technological snafu, a broken tool.


    1. Quantity of Butchness says:

      Levi has deleted every single comment I’ve ever written there–I think that means two! I’ve never found him as interesting as so many do.

      One of the telling points is that, of course, ‘objects withdraw from each other’, but they are not always in a state of withdrawal from each other; but when they are not, they are not just in a state of ‘translation’. This is, in fact, very much like Derrida’s not only ‘taste for the secret’, but also his taste for death, which he clearly worshipped (and may have discovered the secret of how to keep doing it after he performed it, for all I know. At least he managed to get Times of London to write “Derrida ‘Dies'” as an article, still one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.) It’s the insistence on failure and unfullfilment (with no exceptions, which is the problem: Failure is rampant and easy to come by, but it’s not opaque, success does exist in many forms, even if only temporarily) that has come into almost all late-20th century philosophy except Deleuze and Lyotard, perhaps. Or rather, I should say, I don’t those two are quite capable of being ‘in love with failure as such’. Derrida always comes across as being so. All the silly discussion of ‘happiness’ and how it can’t be possible in such a world, etc., are along these lines. That’s bullshit too. The world has always been full of misery, and there has also always been happiness in it. It’s just that these ‘darkening tones’ are part of the trademark of philosophy, and you risk your ‘noblest of careers and callings’ by neglecting this. Not that I have a reason in the world to hope that Harman and Bryant learn how to ‘get out and live’, I can’t think of two people I find less important.

      Appreciate the honesty of ‘it’s what’s going on on the blogs and not much else is’, except that IT is something that ‘goes on’ while also being in a ‘stasis’, because one has to constantly be peering at how the ‘objects are in literal movement’ as they ‘withdraw from each other’. Of course, they communicate even then, the withdrawal is noted and appropriated by the other objects, but the primary qualification for entry into such an elite club is Love of Dissatisfaction. If they think ‘not much can be expected of objects’, I really think they should turn to God. That’s always a good thing to do when you’ve run out of chic things to pronounce.


      1. Quantity of Butchness says:

        I keep bad company over here.

        If you mean me, I haven’t written for 2 weeks, about that…their attention spans aren’t long enough for something like that,that’s just the kind of objects they are (note how the queasy transatlantic shared stomachs were cured by bleuging…)and although I sometimes come in with a big load, I’m then out for awhile, that’s primarily so you won’t think I’m a total beast (rather, just a partial one, but anybody knows that…)


  5. ktismatics says:

    I wasn’t referring to you in particular, QoB. Publicly I’ll just regard the pingback fail as a technological glitch, but privately I’ll hold a grudge. Incidentally, Graham seems to regard Derrida with particular disdain, theough I don’t think that’s the case with Levi. Derrida, you see, speaks only of texts, whereas the OOOlogists are talking about real things: cotton, fire, cool breezes, oil spills. The upcoming Circus Philosophicus apparently includes a section in which Harman has a conversation with some other philosopher on an offshore oil rig — hopefully that’s not the one that blew up.


  6. Quantity of Butchness says:

    “in which Harman has a conversation with some other philosopher on an offshore oil rig”

    When I first read that, I heard the ‘on an offshore rig’ as ‘on the subject of an offshore..’ then when ‘hopefully not the one that blew up’ I interpreted as a kind of ‘democracy to the less famous oil rig objects’, a way of being kind to Da Man Who Don’t Delivah… plus, this led immediately to the recollection of Zizek’s hilarious bullshit art connoisseurship, and his praise of his dear, dear friend Mladen Dolar for not caring to praise the 9th Symphony, but rather some of Beethoven’s ‘more obscure works’, and also Dolar apparently is very sensitive about Schubert’s Hunting Songs…Isn’t it wonderful? despite the fact that I always see Slavoj getting a photo-op of himself raising a glass of wine to her lips, probably one of the obscure English wines of Kent, and modelling it on one of the cookbook-sleeves I have which shows a ballet dancer become celeb chef doing precisely that, with a would-be bemused smirk, which is nevertheless quite Pekinese-nosed, on his bearded mug.


  7. ktismatics says:

    I suspect the oilrig represents a hybrid physical space, artificial land in the middle of the sea, which makes it an interesting philosophical object. An oil platform is the sort of place where steampunk novels are set, populated by half-man half-bat mongrels building time machines.

    My pingback appeared at last on Larval Subjects!


  8. satire incognito says:

    ”My pingback appeared at last on Larval Subjects!”

    Eloise this is sad, even for a Christian straight sub bottom.

    I saw some photos of the cat from the OO symposium and realized he’s too small to top me; it would be a rather ”localized experience”, as Patsy delightfully said in one episode of AbFab.

    If we are to follow slavishly the first Commandment of the Objectal Scriptures, then the oil mass is a strong and independent Object in its own right whose inscrutable inner essences we shall never penetrate; it is thus best left to float alone, magnificent in its Withdrawal, and majestic in its Indifference to the plight of fishermen.

    The DOT PALIN bitch switch is apparently set to minus since last week, she’s now deeply into Catholic Repentance poetry under the ”Recovery tag”.

    In other news, I decided to cast Comrade Analite Lite in ”Marxism and the City”. This especially and particularly because she insolently chose to steal my correspondenteuze, but more generally because she thinks I’m going to put up with her feminist chastisements without retaliation. Premiere next week!


  9. ktismatics says:

    I think the ping arrived too late to get me any extra traffic or you any extra attention, sat-in, although of course one never knows who’s looking in.


  10. ktismatics says:

    I know, I said I was done with OOO once and for all, but I had to read Levi’s new post about translation, since this is Core Claim Two of OOO which I wrote about in this post. Levi is responding to Pete of Deontologistics’ critique of translation, but maybe there’s something there for me too. I don’t give a damn about Kant and transcendentalism and so on. I just want to know whether any sameness is preserved in translation from one language or medium to another and, if so, why that sameness is said by OOO to withdraw rather from the translational interaction rather than being integrally involved in the interaction — like I said in the post, in other words.

    Levi says that the simplest way to begin is to go back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. Okay, I glaze over for awhile — this is still philosophy, not translation. Then he moves on to Deleuze’s concept of multiplicities — another philosopher. Then Levi starts talking about information — here maybe I can find something to work with.

    “information does not exist independent of the system or substance for which it is information. Put otherwise, there is no such thing as pre-existent information or information out there in the universe waiting to be received. Information is instead an event that is system-specific and that is constituted by systems.”

    For me this assertion isn’t helpful at all. I also think it’s wrong. Returning to the illustration in my post, roses probably evolved as red-reflecting flowers because the red ones attracted pollinating bugs more effectively than the non-red ones, so in this regard the information conveyed by the rose’s redness did evolve in a system which included receivers of that information. But humans don’t naturally pollinate roses, yet we receive the redness information just the same. And what about red rocks? They were red, transmitting information that light-detecting systems could pick up, before anything could detect the redness. Obviously the red rock wasn’t transmitting its redness info because it was waiting for creatures to evolve that would pick up the signal. Still, now we can point to that object and say “see the red rock,” and we will be understood: the rock’s color serves as information for us, not because we were part of an archaic rock-red-human info system even before our species evolved, but because we can use the information that happens to be available to us.

    Next, Levi cites Luhmann talking about Bateson talking about information as “an event that brings about a connection between differences.” This again assumes that information is being exchanged between transmitter and receiver. Okay fine for now. Levi’s example is the sun striking his coffee mug, actualizing a particular shade of blue. Firstly, I can’t see why this is an “info event” for the sunlight and the mug; it’s more an info event for Levi. Anyhow, what’s the nature of the “connection between differences” here? The sun and the mug are very different things to be sure. So what’s the connection between them? It’s the light rays emitted by the sun: some are absorbed by the mug, others are reflected off its surface. That works for me: call the light a sort of “information” that links sun and mug together. But the light doesn’t withdraw from this linkage — quite the opposite, in fact. The light is precisely that which connects the two disparate things.

    Levi then talks about bats being able to detect electromagnetic fields, whereas humans cannot. He talks about “perturbations” and so on, but that which connects the differences between the earth, which generates such a field, and the bat is precisely what Levi identified, namely the electromagnetic field. That field doesn’t withdraw; it’s the source of the sameness that links the differences to each other.

    Redness isn’t the rose or the bee; electromagnetic field isn’t the sun or the bat. In both cases it’s a form of energy transmitted by the one and picked up by the other. But now we’ve moved beyond a universe comprised solely of objects into one that contains both objects and energy, and where energy is the commonality which connects different objects to each other. That works for me. Is it possible to identify the energy source for both objects: the light-emitting source of the sun, the electromagnetic field-emitting source of the earth? Sure it is: that’s the kind of thing that science works on. So the energy connecting disparate objects can be identified, as can the source of that energy. Where’s the withdrawal of essences?

    I’m only about halfway through Levi’s post, but I think this is enough for my purposes. Maybe Pete was satisfied, and if so I’m happy that the translation energy they’ve invested in the information exchange has brought them into a closer connection.


  11. ktismatics says:

    Sadly, it appears that Pete’s critique of translation has been detoured onto a broader philosophical discussion of normativity. This probably suits Pete better anyway, since it shifts attention from Levi’s agenda to his own. I can see a way in which normativity might apply directly to OOO. Is there, for example, a normative version of a red-headed woodpecker from which individuals vary to a greater or lesser extent? Is there a normative version of the song Stardust? A normative 1966 Pontiac GTO? But I don’t think that’s the direction the conversation is heading.


  12. ktismatics says:

    As the Pete-Levi debate unfolds I can already tell that I’ll agree more with Levi than with Pete. Pete says this in his latest post, which is long but preliminary:

    “we need to talk about propositions precisely insofar as we need to be able to say that two different assertions have the same content, indeed, so we can say that two different people take the world to be the same way. We need to be able to say that they take the same proposition to be true, just insofar as we need to be able to say that they represent the world in the same way. Now, this is really a matter of representing some part of the world in the same way, but we must also be able to say that two people agree in how they represent the world as a whole. Our representation of the world as a whole is just the totality of propositions that we take to be true. The formal idea of the world is then just the ideal set of true propositions, i.e.,

    A field of sunflowers all point in the direction of the sun, following its arc across the sky: do they take this proposition to be true about the world and their involvement in it? Does the sun? Humans evolved from creatures that could make no propositions of any sort: did our forebears have representations of the world without language? Do prelinguistic children have representations? Do humans perceive and remember things that they’ve never consciously become aware of or framed as propositions? Are there features of the world we experience that we fail to capture in thought and language? And if the “the formal idea of the world is… the set of propositions which is actually true, as opposed to what we take to be true,” then who, or Who, is formulating these true propositions?

    In short, Pete is locked into a linguistic, propositional, rational theory of reality, where thought and language dominate the contend or “objects” being thought or talked about. He’s locked himself firmly inside the Correlation/ It’s this theoretical context against which OOO is pushing, and in this regard I think OOO is doing a relatively good deed. Whatever objections Pete had to Levi’s idea of “translation” probably won’t bear much similarity to my own.


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