February 9th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Openness of the Future: Harman, Politics and the Egyptian People

"Are future events in some way predetermined, or is everything left open? In one sense, it seems that the creation of new assemblages will always be possible, and hence novelty can emerge."
     - Graham Harman

"We continue to raise with the Egyptian Government, as we do with other governments in the region, the imperative for reform and greater openness and participation to provide a better future for all.  We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government to realize their aspirations to live in a democratic society that respects basic human rights."
     - Secretary Hilary Clinton





What is truly going on in Egypt? As I watch the video on the Aljazeera site and see through the lens of a sophisticated technology the empowering irruption of force that is a people's revolution, an assemblage of disparate groups of individuals with their distinctive ethnic, social, cultural, ideological and religious affiliations all coming together to oust a dictator and his tyrannical regime I ponder just what is going on in Egypt. One wants to move through that screen and actually participate in this real struggle, instead of participating vicariously; yet, one has to ask the vital question: Is this my struggle? And, one has to say, both Yes and No; or, even, maybe both and neither. The ambiguity of this struggle is that it slaps us in the West in the face, as we watch our own governments foster the usual vein gestures of non-participation and stand idly by gazing, watching, wondering just what will transpire: situated like spectral ghosts in a movie where the flickering screen is stuck, a frozen frame without reference or history: instead this movie goes on without us, beyond us, realizing its own emergent dream event, one that we ourselves cannot and will not realize. For the Egyptian people are fulfilling an ancient dream, the dream of democracy in action: the engagement among equals immersed as they are advocating their right to be free from all relation to oppression. But even as we watch on, as we listen to these people: these brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, old and young, Islamist and Christian standing together, fighting together in a new type of non-violent participatory struggle we have to ask again: what is truly going on in Egypt?

Gilles Deleuze once told us that writing "has a double function: to translate everything into assemblages and to dismantle the assemblages." He also stated the the two were the same thing. Graham Harman following Michael DeLanda tells us that an assemblage "covers all real entities, including humans, rocks, corporations, and nation states. If every assemblage can be termed a ‘‘person,’’ then every assemblage is made up of subpersonal components as well. There is no final layer of ultimate reality to which larger assemblages can be reduced." Can we see this defiant multitude of individuals calling for the ouster of Mubarak and for the instantiation of the age-old dream of democracy as being part of that strange object we call an assemblage? Is this even relevant? Graham Harman is daily paying tribute to those heroic dead who have been giving their lives for this struggle against oppression: Egypt's Heroic Dead. Is it true that death mobilizes us, catalyzes us? Does reminder of our own finitude liberates us, enabling us to act without fear—for nothing is more terrifying than the possibility that we could live out our dreams, that something is truly at stake in our lives. If only we knew that the world were ending, we would finally be able to risk everything—not just because we would have nothing to lose, but because we would no longer have anything to win.

As Afaf Naged, a former member of the board of directors of the state-owned National Bank of Egypt, said, to a reporter as he participated in the protest at Tahrir Square: "I came here for the first time today because this cabinet is a failure, Mubarak is still meeting the same ugly faces ... he can't believe it is over. He is a very stubborn man." (read more)

As I think about the people of Egypt joining with each other in this momentary assemblage of democratic fervor as they defend their right to be and to be free against all forms of tyranny and oppression, I begin to think about politics and objects. I ask myself just what would an Object-Oriented democracy look like? As we in the West watch on through our twitterings, our blogs, our social chat rooms, and out televised news casts, or through the free press, and subversive avenues of this vast network of relations we call the web I ponder the future of this revolution. Our longings for more agency and participation have been granted, but inside a framework still fundamentally determined by that very assemblage we term capitalism. The demand that everyone become a subject rather than an object has been realized: now we are the subjects administering our own alienation, fulfilling the Situationist dictum that the spectacle is not just the world of appearances but rather the social system in which human beings only interact as their prescribed roles. Haven't we all here in the West been reduced to reduced to passive spectators of a spectacle that is beyond our power to understand of to participate in? "We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience." (Larry Law, Images And Everyday Life)

Has revolution itself become a commodity? Are the the forces of late-Capitalism even now formulating a way through the strategies of capitalist efficiency to profit from this strange irruption/rupture that is the Egyptian peoples revolution? Are we not all anti-realists participating vicariously in a revolution that is not ours? Is this not just one more virtual experience that the late-Capitalist system of mediaville entertainment and non-events is bleeding off into a zone of opportunity for Capital rather than a truth-event in which the people of Egypt shall have their own real day in the sun realized? Or is there another alternative? Is there another path that is toward a speculative realism that can be true to the events that are emerging within Egypt at this particular moment in time?

Nick Land once told us ""To gaze upon the sun directly, without the intervention of screens, reflections, or metaphors—‘to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place’ has been the European aspiration most relentlessly harmonized with the valorization of truth."  His ephebic pupil Reza Negarestani also stated ""The marriage between the sublunary terrestrial slum and the Sun has become a strictly monogamous model that regulates not only ethics, politics and art but also the entire history of thought and organic activities. It is time to return to the promiscuity of the Earth as a dense constellation of interstellar rubbish with dead stars."

Can there be an Object-Oriented politics of value? What if we are moving towards a situation in which the foundation of non-hierarchical society will not be permanent centralization of power, but the standardization of certain disempowering forms of socializing, decision-making, and values. What if the domination of citizens by politics and policing, or employees by administrators and bosses, is no longer imposed on them from some lofty central command center but is a "function of participation itself"? As the authors of Fighting in the Terrain state it:

"Simply to participate in society, we must accept the mediation of structures determined by forces outside our control. For example, our friendships increasingly pass through Facebook, cellular phones, and other technologies that map our activities and relationships for corporations as well as government intelligence; these formats also shape the content of the friendships themselves. The same goes for our economic activities: in place of simple poverty we have loans and credit ratings—we are not a class without property, but a class driven by debt. And once again, all this appears voluntary, or even as progress."

What if what we are seeing in Egypt is no longer to be situated within the old politics of failure, but as the mobilization of a new paradigm, a new form of revolt? What if what we are seeing is not so much a rupture at the core of politics so much as the revolt of a people against the old ways of being? What if what we are seeing is that this is not so much a material attack upon the Mubarak regime as it is a struggle to affirm a new and different way/mode of being? The emergence of a new politics of being? Instead of reducing this event to a virtual screen that is already lost among its own mirrors, we instead begin to affirm the decisions of a new realism: one that guarantees that no thing, not even an assemblage of citizens in revolt can be reduced to their relations, but instead affirms this very assemblage as a set of "obstinate individuals that cannot be dissolved into anything else (Harman)." As Harman suggests, "It is not required that we shun the actuality of these individuals. What is required is that we develop a new theory of specific objects: withdrawn from their constituent parts and environmental wholes, yet somehow managing to engage in causal interactions with those neighbors anyway." But if this assemblage is in itself an object, a force that cannot be reduced to any of  its relations, then what kind of object is it? And, more important, how can we understand such an object as a political assemblage in the ongoing struggle of the Egyptian peoples emancipatory mobilization and effort to gain  for themselves democracy as its truth-event?

I would affirm along with Harman that yes, we need a new theory of objects as well as a politics of objects as well. He explores a path toward such a politics in his book on Bruno Latour where he tells us that we "must liberate politics from the narrowly human realm and allow prions and the ozone hole to speak as well" (91). The point being that politics is not just for us it is also for every thing or object as well. One might say that it is in the political sphere that objects truly begin to duel in earnest. In his commentary on Latour he reminds us that the "politician forever balances information, funding, threats, kindness, politeness, loyalty, disloyalty, and the perpetual search for ways and means. In this respect the politician is the model for every sort of actor. To declare oneself untainted by strife between conflicting forces is to deny that one is an actant" (21). Bruno Latour claims to go back to things (objects) by proposing gatherings of hybrid ecologies. He rejects institutional politics and claims for what he calls object-oriented politics, as a much more effective way to represent the contemporary pixelisation of politics. [2] As Latour says: "It’s clear that each object —each issue— generates a different pattern of emotions and disruptions, of disagreements and agreements. There might be no continuity, no coherence in our opinions, but there is a hidden continuity and a hidden coherence in what we are attached to. Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new occasions to passionately differ and dispute. Each object may also offer new ways of achieving closure without having to agree on much else.” His point being that “we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible…” So in the case of these Egyptians who have assembled and formed a political ecology or assemblage, people who may even hold diametrically opposed views on religion or even ideological convictions have entered into a larger assemblage against the oppressive force of a current regime.

Jodi Dean on her blog I Cite has a four part essay on What is to be done? that is of course based on Lenin's book of that title. All four are worth reading and relevant to the current situation in Egypt: read each at I, II, III, IV. She discusses and points to an article on The Atlantic journal site that discusses Egyptian Activists' Action Plan. The journal published a set of images from a pamphlet: Egyptian activists have been circulating a kind of primer to Friday's planned protest. We were sent the plan by two separate sources and have decided to publish excerpts here, with translations  into English. What is interesting is that this small object, this pamphlet guided an ongoing revolution, forged its secret message of hope, and gathered the force of a people into the assemblage we now see in Tahrir Square. We can only hope that this emerging assemblage of individuals for whom the 'will of the depths' is no longer just a dream but an actualized object of the real that is their lives being lived now triumphs over a corrupt and oppressive regime that has for far too long held them in bondage.   

Graham Harman once said that one of the reasons he shys "...away from political discussions in our philosophical circles is that they seem to be so awfully narrow. There is only one socially acceptable political position: not only the Left, but a Left devoted to Revolution, with everything else packaged as compromised "reform" that merely preserves the awful system it attempts to shape. But one of the reasons I love Zizek so much as a political writer (despite being nowhere close to him on the political spectrum) is that he refuses the "beautiful soul" position and wants actual politics rather than what your book rightly calls the hysterical extreme protest gestures that don't really expect their demands to be met. I like Zizek's call for finite, real demands rather than "infinite" ones, which merely allow the ruling powers to say "ah yes, wouldn't it be great if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not." I think Zizek made this point about Bush's reaction to the Iraq War protests: "Isn't this great? That's what we are fighting for: the freedom for Iraqis to protest just like this." And you're right in your book that protests become a kind of carnivalesque background noise that don't change anything." (read more)

We can only hope that this is no longer a carnival and that there are moments in time when revolutions produce more that background noise: and, most of all, we hope that it produces the lasting change that is democracy's legacy yet to be realized. Mark Fischer author of Capitalist Realism in the set of emails between him and Graham Harman that I quoted above remarks that "One problem with the reform-revolution binary - and I think this is absolutely relates to the point about finite versus infinite demands - is that it sets the bar so ridiculously high, such that anything short of a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society will count as a failure." Harman chimes in with another pertinent statement latter in the email exchange saying "I'm not seeing enough evidence of people allowing their political positions to be falsified. It's just a lot of fuzzy slogans about revolution and neo-liberalism, and the range of acceptable politics is suffocatingly narrow. Don't people have any smart conservative friends? They ought to get some. It broadens your world and really challenges you to think. Otherwise, you simply get a party game where everyone is trying to outflank everyone in one direction. Your thoughts?"

Mark Fischer reflects on some of the ideas on Harman as well as Nick Srnicek, saying, "Nick Srnicek's approach, the way that he instrumentalizes actor-network theory for leftist purposes. These questions are key: what are the actors in any particular network? How can these actors be affected? How can dominant networks be decomposed and new networks installed? The focus on this style of thinking in Prince Of Networks meant that, from my point of view, the book was buzzing with political potentials in a way that so much 'political philosophy' is not - all the more so because it wasn't explicitly political." The idea of a political philosophy that is implicit rather than explicit brings us to another aspect of Harman's choice of philosophical hyperbole over critique. As he says in his essay of Michael DeLanda: "When reading an interesting new work of philosophy, I find myself asking not ‘‘where are the mistaken arguments here?’’, but rather: ‘‘if this work were the greatest of the century, how would our current thoughts need to change? And what would we still be missing?’’ This method avoids gullible hero-worship (if such a thing still exists) by identifying the empty rooms that are found in even the greatest philosophies. Yet it also does more justice to bold visions than the excessively admired ‘‘critical thinking’’ that finds 17 mistakes in Kant and 19 mistakes in some dry, forgettable article that risks nothing." Continuing he defines philosophical hyperbole, saying, "The general principle is that exaggeration is a more useful method than respectable critical understatement, since the latter merely provides an alibi for the critic no matter what happens. Exaggeration means the willingness to be falsified, and an openness to surprise. Cagey ironic caution, by contrast, is simply a safe move by those seeking to avoid demerit points. But one day, death wipes the slate clean, and only the gamblers have a chance to survive in the dreams of their heirs."

Politics doesn't always need to be direct, it can at times relate itself indirectly just like all other objects. We can see that this emergence within the 'will of the depths' of the people of Egypt is just such an indirect openess toward the future. For these are people that have time on their side, and are awaiting the moment when those other objects (leaders) will begin the process of reconciliation and openness that will allow a true democracy to emerge in Egypt. So do we all.



1. Harman, Graham, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press 2009 )
2. Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitic: Or How to Make Things Public Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy’ (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2005)



 

S.C. Hickman

Timothy Morton on Politics and OOO: The Anarchy of Objects

"So I'm going to put my foot in my mouth and live to regret this, and I can't believe I'm actually thinking this. But I might be an anarchist object-oriented ontologist. Now the 30-year-old me is becoming apoplectic and is about to have a cardiac arrest or murder me. I thought I had it all figured out and one thing I'd figured out was, anarchy was not cool."
     - Timothy Morton



Timothy Morton wrote and interesting piece on Notes Towards an OOO Politics in his blog that prompts this little essay. In it he differentiates the distancing inherent in any Object-Oriented Ontology and the political use to which it might be put in practice, saying that there is "no inherent politics to OOO and I for one think that's a good thing." Yes, obviously OOO is value neutral in that sense being as it is about the 'What is there?' (i.e., a metaphysics, rather than either an epistemology or an aesthetic, ethics, or political philosophy of value). Yet, isn't it true that all philosophy is an outgrowth of that age old quest for Wisdom? And one of its greatest benefactors, Socrates, was convicted of supposedly corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth for awakening within those young minds the ability to think against the grain of their elders received wisdom (i.e., made them think critically). And, as we all know any authoritative government hates the very idea of independent thinking. Think of how many universities across the world are even now slowly getting rid of both their investment in the humanities and in their philosophical departments as just one case. Yet, as Tim states it, philosophy in the hands of any sophist can be twisted to serve any master and has done so in a multitude of cases throughout our own protracted history. I think the central point of this being that ontology itself precludes the so to speak moral dimension: being value free rather than value centric.

His reading of the Hegelian current in most academic circles is spot on, and yes it even sounds a little empiricist oriented with his use of 'ideas inevitably come bundled with attitudes'. Harman has always been against an empiricist reading that objects are bundles of qualities or impressions since there is no substratum to validate such a notion. As long as ideas and attitudes are not equated I can accept Tim's notion. He also adds that one must "pare away the teleology" in such a notion, too. He is spot on about the correlationist illusion that "the goal in life is to get exactly the right attitude about everything." Even the use of goal implies already some teleological orientation is such an attitude of attitudes. Against a sort of inhumane cynicism, the type that was critiqued by such philosophers as Peter Sloterdijk (Critique of Cynical Reason)  he tells us OOO seeks an alternative path.

He then makes to points about OOO: first, that all objects withdraw (i.e., they are unique, not individual); and, second, all entities are "uncanny, even to themselves." Harman has himself states in Prince of Networks that the "real object is a unified thing, but not an empty unity. It possesses a multitude of qualities that it unifies in a highly specific way” (PON, p.218). In this sense essence is the unity of the real objects over against its moments. It is the interplay between the unity and the plurality of an object. It is “incarcerated in the very reality of the individual thing; it is not a universal perfect form lying outside the thing and shared by many individuals” (PON, p.206). 

Next, Tim reminds us that since "objects withdraw, there is no top object and no bottom object. No “matter,” no lava, no holistic web. Just a plenum of unique objects." What he is referring to here is Harman's use of overmining and underminding, concepts that certain philosophers use to attack an Object-Oriented approach to objects. As Harman states it:

“The overmining philosophies say that objects are naive because they are posited uselessly as substrata lying behind what is more directly given. This might be images in consciousness. It might be relations, or events, or bundles of qualities. Correlationism is just one type of overmining philosophy, though it happens to be the most common type in the past two centuries. There is also simply relationism. I myself (like Meillassoux) hold that Latour is not a correlationist, though one might argue the opposite without being ridiculous; there are certainly correlationist moments in Latour (“microbes did not exist before Pasteur”). But it should be crystal clear that Whitehead is not a correlationist. Yet he is still an overminer of objects” (OOP Blog Nov 6th 2009). [And, the] undermining philosophies say that objects are naive because they are not deep enough. There is something deeper than objects. In an extreme case, it might be “the One.” In less extreme cases, it might be some pre-individual realm. Or it might be atoms; or water or air, for that matter. The pre-Socratic philosophies are all undermining philosophies, but there are also more recent versions of this option” (OOP Blog, Nov 6 2009).

Then Tim ends with a notion that if there is just a "plenum of unique objects" then what we have is a notion of anarchy. Then as he states it: "So I'm going to put my foot in my mouth and live to regret this, and I can't believe I'm actually thinking this. But I might be an anarchist object-oriented ontologist. Now the 30-year-old me is becoming apoplectic and is about to have a cardiac arrest or murder me. I thought I had it all figured out and one thing I'd figured out was, anarchy was not cool."

Interesting that he would move toward an anarchist view of objects. Is this a new turn in OOO thinking? Maybe this is what Harman meant with his "zero-person" perspective. The zero-person stance “refers to the essence or intrinsic nature of any entity apart from any access we might have to it” (ZP, 253). “Objects must be granted zero-person reality that can only be translated into descriptive terms of the first or third person kind”. “Zero-person” refers to “the reality of any entity apart from its interactions with out entities of any kind. This changes the nature of the problem. Instead of trying to bridge the gap between two kinds of descriptions, we now have a gap between description and reality” (ZP, p. 261). “Both mind and body occupy the zero-person stance, quite apart from any experience of them”. Zero-person is a synonym for ESSENCE. “Georg Cantor’s insights into transfinite numbers even suggests that we cannot have a total set of all properties of the house, which strengthens the hand of the zero-person stance all the more” (ZP, p.263). [2]



1. Harman, Graham, Prince of Networks (PON) re.press, 2009
2. Harman, Graham, Zero-Person and the Psyche (ZP) in David Skrbina (ed), Mind That Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millenium, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009
S.C. Hickman

The Deleuzian Hooligans: Graham Harman Against the Potential and the Virtual

"Recall that there is no such thing for Latour as a 'becoming' that would exceed individual actors. Nor is there any 'virtuality' that exceeds them, just as potentiality does not not exceed them. The much-discussed difference between potential and virtual, so often wielded like a billy club in our time by Deleuzian hooligans, is irrelevant here - both terms fail Latour's standard of concreteness in exactly the same way."
     - Graham Harman



As in all things I'm still doing catch up, so much of what I write below may be old hat to many, but for me it is a worthwhile exercise and a clarification for myself to understand why Graham Harman is so adamantly defiant in his resistance to the 'virtual' and 'potential'. Harman critiques these as two separate concepts, and does so against Gilles Deleuze's use of those terms as a descendent of Bergson. First we need to explore how Deleuze uses these terms in his own discourse. One needs to remember that Deleuze was an ephebe of Henri Bergson, and only under the precursor light of that philosophical heritage can we discover the misprisions and revisions to which Deleuze used or transformed/translated Bergon's main concepts.

Bergson in Matter and Memory explicates his concept of the virtual as a conception of time and movement much like music in its reciprocal passage between perception and memory:

“It is…the performance of the movements which follow in the movements which precede, a performance whereby the part virtually contains the whole, as when each note of a tune learned by heart seems to lean over the next to watch its execution.” (M&M: 94) [1]

The basic concept here is that the virtual is synonymous with intuition. As Bergson states it: “In concrete perception, memory intervenes, and the subjectivity of sensible qualities is due precisely to the fact that our consciousness, which begins by being only memory, prolongs a plurality of moments into each other, contracting them into a single intuition.” (M&M: 219) But before continuing we must affirm what Keith Ansell Pearson in his essay The Reality of the Virtual: Bergson and Deleuze  describes as the imprecise use of the virtual as a term, as well as its confusion in our current era with chaos and complexity theory; for Bergon's term and these latter uses are in most senses of the term diametrically opposed to each other. For many virtuality implies what is not actual - "something like the universe in its totality and unfathomable complexity. (Pearson: 1112). [2]  As Pearson tells us "it is the part that is virtual and the whole that is real" (Pearson: 1112).

This is just where Deleuze parts ways with Bergson, and according to Levi Bryant the "virtual is thus that half of the object that presides over its being or actuality. What the virtual explains is how a discrete ("unconnected") actuality, entity, or being, can nonetheless belong to one and the same relational structure or system." [3]  He quotes from Deleuze's Difference and Repetition in which Deleuze says that he opposes "the virtual and the real: although it could not have been more precise before now, this terminology must be corrected. The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual." Bryant tells us that most followers of Deleuze ignore his "ontology of the pure past", and instead opt for a Deleuze as a precursor of complexity theory. Bryant goes on to ask: "What if, however, we could account for the relational dimension of beings coupled with their discreteness without having to evoke something like a pure past? What if we could account for this relational dimension of all discrete entities sheerly in terms of actuality?" Then Bryant comes to the heart of the problem: causation - how does anything ever change? As he states it following remarks on Luhmann in his Social Systems in which he "has proposed that systems are entirely composed of events that cease to exist the moment they occur." Bryant goes on to say in conclusion:

"That is, there is no substance in which systems inhere. As a result, the challenge of every system consists in the question of how it is able to perpetually reproduce itself from moment to moment. What are those events that generate connectivity to other events? Is there a way of conceiving being such that being reproduces itself at every moment in its relational organization, allowing us to dispense with strange ontologies that would require us to claim that the past IS? Could not organization, systematicity, be seen as an emergent property of elements, rather than as the result of another dimension called the virtual?"

In a latter essay Bryant tells us in answer to a users comment he describes Harman's sense of the virtual and his own, saying:

"Graham’s critique of the virtual is distinct from his critique of the potential. When Graham critiques the concept of the virtual he is responding to the Deleuzian concept of the virtual where, at the virtual level, all of being is one and it is then subsequently divided up into individuals and processes of actualization. While I’m certainly deeply influenced by Deleuze, I don’t advocate this conception of the virtual. For me, individuals precede the virtual such that there is no “one-all” that is then divided up. In my view, the virtual is strictly a dimension of objects. Rocks have their own virtuality, I have my own virtuality, you have your own virtuality, etc. Graham, I think, has fewer objections to this conception of the virtual, but it seems we still disagree on the potential. I like the potential and don’t think it entails that qualities have to already be ready-made in objects (I don’t think actualized qualities need have any resemblance to virtual potentials, and can be genuine creations in the world). Graham insists that objects are fully actual and fully deployed. I argue that objects are always filled with all sorts of potentials. They’re concrete without being fully actual. As for the question about withdrawal, the virtual dimension is for me only one way in which objects are withdrawn. I outline this schematically in my most recent post."

So at issue is the concept of virtual as defined by Deleuze that reduces everything to a virtual lump or substratum out of which all things proceed toward actualization. It seems that both Harman and Bryant agree on this, but disagree on the use of the term 'potentiality'. From Bryant's remarks this is the particular rift or rupture between these two philosophers: the difference that makes a difference - Harman opting for an Object-Oriented path that "insists that objects are fully actual and fully deployed" always already with no need for subtraction or supplement; yet, also exceed all our expectations, being neither fully reducible to some ultimate substratum, nor fully definable by some scientific description (i.e., there is always something left over, something that exceeds all descriptions of an object). Yet, for Bryant objects seem to be "filled with all sorts of potentials", and against Harman he insists that they are concrete but not fully actual. He describes his sense of withdrawness of objects, a key concept for Harman, as being only one among many ways in which the virtual dimension is an aspect of this process.

To get at what Bryant means by 'poteniality' I move to his blog post Shaviro on Relations in which he tells us:

"I think it’s absolutely vital that objects be treated as split. When I speak of objects as split I am primarily speaking of objects as split between their powers or capacities and their actuality, manifestation, or qualities. It is necessary, I hold, that it be possible and common– even ubiquitous –that objects be “out of phase” with their qualities. That is, an essential feature of any object is that 1) an object can be active without manifesting certain actualities (it can be, as it were, veiled), 2) objects can be dormant or, as Graham nicely puts it, “asleep”, such that they don’t manifest any actualities at all, and 3) objects always have the power to manifest other actualities that aren’t manifested at the moment when entering into diffferent circumstances. This is why I treat objects as split-objects, treating the split at the heart of objects as the split between their powers or capacities as forces to be reckoned with and their actuality or events they manifest at a particular point in space-time."

This idea that an object harbors a potential or capacity to manifest its actuality in a plurality of ways to meet differing sets of circumstance, and his equalization of "powers and capacities" as forces to be reckoned with the actuality being manifested only at a particular moment in the space-time dimension is what sets him at odds with Harman's views. He continues in further clarification that his retention of the categories of the virtual and the potential contra Harman in this post, saying,

"1) the virtual as I characterize it is absolutely discrete. Contra Deleuze, there is, for me, no such thing as a pre-individual virtual that is a whole out of which individual objects emerge. Rather, the virtual dimension of objects is both a virtual dimension of objects, and a discrete structure independent of the virtual structures of other objects. The virtual, for me, is thus always individual in the robust Aristotlean sense of being a primary substance. 2) The virtual as I conceive it is a perfectly determinate structure, though different from any of the actualized qualities of objects. If it differs from the actualized qualities of objects then this is because the process of actualization generally, though not always, involves translation as the object navigates its exo-relations to other objects producing a unique object. In the past Harman has said to me that the category of potentiality undermines novelty by placing qualities in objects at the outset. The criticism here would be something along the lines that the acorn is treated as already being an oak tree. I don’t think this is the case because the process of actualization requires the navigation and translation of exo-relations to other objects, creating a new product as a result. In short, the actuality is not there at the outset but requires a whole series of mediations to come to be."

In Harman's post on disappointing realisms he tells us why he is against 'potential' and the 'virtual', saying,

"To point to an object, or to its essence (the two are different for me) requires an unyielding awareness of the fact that an object is reducible neither downward to its components nor upward to its effects. It is not merely “potential,” because when you say “potential” you’re really talking about potential future effects, and that shifts the hot potato forward in time without specifying what about the thing right now allows it to have new expressions in the future. (In fact, I don’t think potential is a real category at all, and in this I agree with the early Latour.)

"Nor, in my opinion, is the object “virtual.” I still don’t think anyone (including Deleuze) has formulated this concept with the necessary degree of precision. For that reason, it functions in contemporary discourse mostly as a negative trope: “oh, you’re still confusing the potential with the virtual,” etc.

Furthermore, every version of the virtual I have seen so far (I await Levi’s version in his forthcoming book to see if he escapes this trap) plays a bit of a shell game by trying to let the virtual function as both discrete and continuous simultaneously, without facing up to the problems that this generates.

In other words, they tell us that the virtual isn’t a One. It’s, I don’t know, “clusters of intensities,” or “constellations of singularities,” or something of the sort. So, it has distinct zones of some sort and doesn’t represent a monistic apeiron.

But then if you point to the (occasionalist) problem of how individual zones can communicate then suddenly we encounter the monist move again. You see, the parts of the virtual don’t bleed entirely together, but they’re also not separate either.

In other words, the virtual is simply a way of positing a magical concept that, somehow, gives us both the discrete and the continuous simultaneously.

In short, I reject both the potential and the virtual in favor solely of the actual. But the actual is much weirder than people think. It is located higher than its components but lower than its effects. It is a sort of ghost, but it’s a rock solid ghost that burrows between the known floors of any building."

This in a nutshell is Harman's view and rejection of the potential and the virtual, and for quoting him in my epigraph where he says, "Recall that there is no such thing for Latour as a 'becoming' that would exceed individual actors. Nor is there any 'virtuality' that exceeds them, just as potentiality does not not exceed them. The much-discussed difference between potential and virtual, so often wielded like a billy club in our time by Deleuzian hooligans, is irrelevant here - both terms fail Latour's standard of concreteness in exactly the same way. (PON: 101)" [4] When it comes down to it there is the basic truth he wishes to convey, and I've already stated it above; yet, it should be stated again: Harman "insists that objects are fully actual and fully deployed." No if's, and's, or but's... and, the next time you wander through an empty building be on the look out for any weird ghosts burrowing between the floors! You just might find yourself in that hyperbolic realm of the actual that Harman is conveying with such aplumb within his weird realist approach to ontology. 


1. Matter and Memory 2004. (M & M) republication of 1912 MacMillan edition. translators N. Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. Dover Publications.
2. MLN 120 (2005): 1112–1127 © 2006 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
3. Bryant, Levi, Deleuze's Two Conceptions of the Virtual (2006)
4. Harman, Graham, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, (re.press Melbourne 2009)