August 20th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Levi R. Bryant: The Ontological Thesis

"Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into..."

     - Pynchon, Thomas - Gravity's Rainbow

Heidegger once told us that language could be "broken up into world-things objectively present. Discourse is existential language because the beings whose disclosedness it significantly articulates have the kind of being of being-in-the-world which is thrown and reliant upon the "world."1

Levi R. Bryant in his new book The Democracy of Objects calls this articulation a form of the ontological thesis which stipulates that "the world must be a particular way for certain practices and activities like perception, experimentation, discourse, and so on, to be possible and that the world would be this way regardless of whether we perceived, experimented, or discoursed about it."2 He argues for ontology but is not opposed to epistemology, rather he opposes what he terms, after Roy Bhaskar, the epistemic fallacy (59) which he tells us "consists in the thesis that properly ontological questions can be fully transposed into epistemological questions (64)". The epistimological fallacy has come to dominate the correlational arguments of Kant and his followers because the "correlationist has transformed the questions of what beings are into questions of our access to beings, and because questions of access necessarily trace back to questions of givenness, givenness comes to legislate what exists and what does not exist (64)".

In the first chapter of his new work Levi takes on the speculations of the critical realist Roy Bhaskar, the British philosopher whose work challenges both the Analytic and Continental traditions of what has become known as the 'linguistic turn' or the correlational paradox. The term Correlationism is a term coined by Quentin Meillassoux in his work After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency in which he defines the term, saying, by 'correlation' "we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never either term considered apart from the other".3 This attack upon the conceptual arguments of the correlationists can be traced back to the early Greek Philosophers, especially Parmenides who first formulated the idea that "thinking and being are the same" (E.D. Phillips, 1955). Some see in this the beginnings of Idealism best typified by Hegel when he stated that the task of philosophy "determines itself by making the unity of thinking and being, its foundational idea, objective, and conceiving...".4 Yet, we must not mistake German Idealism and, specifically, subjective idealism per say with the correlationist stance, instead, as Levi informs us subjective and absolute idealism are "only two variations of correlationism". There is a strong and weak form of the correlationist stance. Kant was a defender of the weak form believing that not only were there objects (beings) for-us, but that there were also things-in-themselves. Kant's only qualm was that we could only ever have access to beings for-us and that things-in-themselves were forever closed off from philosophical speculation. For the strong correlationist even the semblance of things-in-themselves vanishes, instead there is nothing outside the correlate of Thought and Being. We can see this in Hegel when he states:

"We think natural objects. Intelligence familiarizes itself with things, not of course in their sensuous existence, but by thinking them and positing their content in itself; and in, so to speak, adding form, universality..." (1970b: 9) ..."From our point of view mind has for its presupposition Nature, of which it is the truth, and for that reason its absolute prius. In this truth Nature is vanished, and mind has resulted as the "Idea" entered on possession of itself. here the subject and object of the Idea are one - either is the intelligent unity. (1971:8)"

From the above statement we can see what Levi describes as the heart of the correlationist speculation: its profound anthropocism - that all claims "about being are claims about being for humans" (38). Against the correlationism of both Analytic and Continental thought and praxis Levi argues for a post-humanist, realist ontology:

"A post-humanist, realist ontology is not an anti-human ontology, but is rather ontology where humans are no longer monarchs of being but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings" (40). 

In an interview Levi recently stated that "entanglements allow us to think in terms of all entangled objects contributing differences of their own as they weave themselves together, rather than thinking in terms of only one agency contributing all the important differences. The philosopher Karen Barad suggests that we think these sorts of entanglements in terms of “diffraction patterns” in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway. A diffraction pattern is what occurs when waves intersect with one another. You throw a pebble into a pond and then you throw another pebble into a pond. Both pebbles create concentric patterns of waves. At some point these waves intersect creating a distinctive pattern as a result of the differences embodied in both of the waves. This is the perfect metaphor. Rather than thinking of one object overdetermining all the other objects by actively giving form to those objects, we should instead think of objects on a flat ontological plain among one another creating distinctive diffraction patterns as their differences interact with one another." The decentering of the human as primary agent and center of philosophical speculation is at the heart of Levi's onticology; yet, as he explicates "It is not a question of excluding the human and the social, but of decentering them from the place of ontological privilege they currently enjoy within contemporary philosophy and theory."

As a part of this process Levi introduces the concept of the Virtual Proper Being: The virtual proper being of an object is what makes an object properly an object. As he states it: "It is that which constitutes an object as a difference engine or generative mechanism. However, no one nor any other thing ever encounters an object qua its virtual proper being, for the substance of an object is perpetually withdrawn or in excess of any of its manifestations. Rather, the virtual proper being of an object can only ever be inferred from its local manifestations in the world. By contrast, the local manifestation of an object is the manner in which a substance or virtual proper being is actualized in the world under determinate conditions." This idea of objects as difference engines would need us to rehabilitate the thought of Leibniz and his monadology and occasionalism, his ideas of force, power, and action in which monads were seen as non-spatiotemporal substances that are the true purveyors of qualities and phenomena (Dunham 62).5

In this sense we see the inner workings of what Graham Harman meant by the duel of real vs. sensual objects, of which the real can never be directly apprehended but is forever withdrawn from all spatio-temporal interactions and can only be inferred or lured out of its hiddeness through contact with the sensual surface of its own hidden powers. This sort of idea is summed up by Harman: "When I stare at a river, wolf, government machine, or army, I do not grasp the whole of their reality. This reality slips from view into a perpetually veiled underworld, leaving me with only the most frivolous simulacra of these entities (39)".6 But the key here is that the truly important rift between the real and sensual world of objects lies not in the objects themselves but in our theoretical distortions and translations of those objects both in theory and practice as we interject our own Thought. Because of this distorted lens of theory and praxis Harman tells us that the "only way to do justice to objects is to consider that their reality is free of all relation, deeper than all reciporcity. The object is a dark crystal veiled in a private vacuum: irreducible to its own pieces, and equally irreducible to its outward relations with other things (47)."6

In response to this inner life of objects Levi concludes:

"If reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it, then this is because (1) objects do not relate directly to other objects, but rather relate to other objects only through their own distinctions, and (2) because objects do not themselves register the distinctions that allow them to relate to other objects in this way. Objects are thus withdrawn in a dual sense. On the one hand, objects are withdrawn from other objects in that they never directly encounter these other objects, but rather transform these perturbations into information according to their own organization. On the other hand, objects are withdrawn even from themselves as the distinction through which operations are possible, the endo-structure of objects, withdraw into the background, as it were, in the course of operations(143).

Yet, even if objects withdraw into this veiled underworld they still manifest themselves through perturbations in the environment, and as Levi tells us " objects tend to be perturbed by other objects in their environment in more or less constant ways. Insofar as objects are perturbed in more or less constant ways by other objects in their environment, they tend to have fairly stable and ongoing local manifestations. As a consequence, the volcanic powers objects have folded within them remain largely hidden from view." He calls this manifestation of objects as "regimes of attraction", describing them as "networks of fairly stable exo-relations among objects that tend to produce stable and repetitive local manifestations among the objects within the regime of attraction. Within a regime of attraction, causal relations can be bi-directional or symmetrical or uni-directional or asymmetrical. Bi-directional causation is a circular relation in which two or more entities reciprocally perturb one another in response to each other."

Against the idea of an atomistic universe of mechanistic forces and inert matter this new philosophy is opening up a dynamic world of strange objects and relations, and as Levi states it:

"What is important, however, is the recognition that the substantiality of objects lies not in their parts, but in their structure or organization, and that objects are not brute clods that merely sit there, contemplating their self-perfection like Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, but that they are dynamic and evolving as a consequence of their own internal dynamics and interfaces with their environment."

I have only begun to tease out many of the threads that form the arguments for Levi's brilliant work... I will have more to say in the future! His work is available online here or for those that want a hard copy here.

1. Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (Kindle Locations 2430-2431). Kindle Edition.
2. Levi R. Bryant. The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011) p. 65
3. After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (Continuum, 2008)
4. Hegel, G.W.F. 1970a. Werke in zwanzig Banden. Wekausgabe, 20. vols. E. Moldenhauer & K. Michel (eds.), Frankfurt:Surkamp.
5. Idealism: The Hisory of a Philosophy. Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant and Sean Watson McGill-Queen's Universtiy Press 2011
6. Graham Harman The Quadruple Object. Zero Books, 2011