September 30th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Further thoughts on Levi R. Bryant's post on 'relata'...

Levi's post on Karen Barad's concept that "relata do not precede relations" made me go back and readread pertinent aspects of her work on agential realism. Some thoughts:

I know this is more of a discussion about internal/external relations, but I was interested in Barad's ideas of relata not preceding relations... Your statement: "The real issue is not whether or not whether or not it is possible to move beyond correlationism or whether being can only ever be thought in relation to thought and whether thought can only ever be thought in relation to being, but rather whether or not relations are internal or external."

Karen Barad's notion of intra-action is key to her agential realism, which seems to be about the boundary rather than the gap between the internal/external relation. I think it is here that your thought and hers seem to be in partial agreement in the sense that it is this entaglement between internal/external relations at the boundary that is the question. The difference is that she does not accept the OOO concept of the real/sensual distinction, instead she seems to fall within the transcendental empiricists tradition in which only phenomenon exist. As she state it:

"The notion of intra-action is a key element of my agential realist framework. The neologism "intra-action" signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual "interaction," which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action. It is important to note that the "distinct" agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute, sense, that is, agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don't exist as individual elements.(33)"

Unlike OOO she does not affirm a fully deployed universe of objects. She affirms Phenomenon but leaves any sense of a noumenon (real object in Harman's sense) out of the equation. And, yet, I wonder if she is not collapsing the real into the sensual with her use of diffraction? She seems to be moving back into a transcendental empiricist tradition in this. As she says: "A specific intra-action (involving a specific material configuration of the "apparatus") enacts an agential cut (in contrast to the Cartesian cut-an inherent distinction-between subject and object), effecting a separation between "subject" and "object." That is, the agential cut enacts a resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological (and semantic) indeterminacy.(334)"

It's not about the marking of a distinciton (in the Luhmanian sense or Cartesian sense) that produces a gap between observer/observed, etc.; instead, it is the agential cut that is productive of a resolution - both ontological and semantic - in the inederminancy of the object (phenomenon) itself. It's about the production of boundaries instead. It seems that for her what is needed is a method attuned to the entanglement of the apparatuses of production, one that enables genealogical analyses of how boundaries are produced rather than presuming sets of well-worn binaries in advance.(29) And it is in this sense that the central metaphor of 'diffraction' is at the heart of this agential realism: "I argue that a diffractive methodology is respectful of the entanglement of ideas and other materials in ways that reflexive methodologies are not.(29)"

Does Barad know of OOO? If so what does she think of the real/sensual distinction? For me at least I agree with Henry E. Allison and his use of the two-aspect theory of the phenomenon/noumenon concepts as being a distinction between what we as humans can describe (appearance/phenomenon) and what we cannot (noumenon). Kant according to this did not see phenomenon/noumenon as two separate objects but as one object for-us(phenomenon) and for-itself(noumenon).

For Graham Harman there are two significant aspects to his theory of objects: first, is the four-fold structure of objects themselves, which "describes the structure of objects that are isolated from one another and may provide the means to account for their communication"; and, second is the dynamic nature of the universe itself, the idea of a world that "vibrates up and down between numerous levels, rather than one that sits around in a fixed Heideggerian dualism between light and shadow. All of these steps set the fourfold into motion." (Dwelling with the Fourfold . Space and Culture 2009 12: 292)

Above Harman speaks of "communication" as qualifying aspect of an object's internal/external relations, and it seems that for him the boundaries are between levels of being in how these communications are enacted. Communication is key, but how are theses processes of this communication both internally and externally enacted? How do autonomous withdrawn objects ever communicate with external objects? By what mechanism does an object carry on internal communications between its real and sensual aspects?

Levi in his discussion of Luhmanian operational closure of autopoetic objects has argued that there are four important features of objects (151, Democracy of Objects): first, objects relate only to themselves and never to their environment; second, every substance or system is organized around a distinction between system and environment that the system itself draws; third, autopoetic substances, in contrast to allopoetic substances, constitute their own elements or perpetually reproduce themselves through themselves or their own activities; and, finally, substances are such that we can have substances nested within substances, while these substances nested within substances nonetheless belong to the environment of the substance within which they are nested(ibid).

To break it down:

1. An object is an autonomous entity that communicates internally but never externally with its environment.
2. Objects produce gaps between themselves and their environment.
3. Autopoetic and Allopoetic (Varela): Autopoetic systems are those that are self-organized and are self renewed, while allopoetic systems are externally driven. Objects are independent of all relation and define and reproduce themselves. Think of seeds: natural seeds are autopoetic: they reproduce themselves through internal mechanism; while human engineered seeds are allopoetic, their production and reproduction are controlled by external forces (see wiki entry on gentic use restriction).
4. Objects can exist within other objects, and these internal objects exist within the environment of the larger Object.

If objects only ever relate to themselves then how do objects ever communicate with other objects? This is a paradox both Levi and Harman in agreement. This is where the distinction between the real (noumenon) and sensual (phenomenon) object(s) takes its place on the stage of many levels. How objects negotiate the boundaries of these levels seems to be one of the issues central to OOO at the moment. No real object according to Levi and Harman can ever communicate with another real object, they are like Luhman's systems forever inclosed within their own internal world. Yet, it seems that it is through the sensual/phenomenal mechanisms that they overcome the barriers to this dilemna. For Levi there is the notion of 'regimes of attraction" along with 'irritaton' and 'perturbation' that offer a way out of this dilemna. Levi tells us that regimes of attraction can "be thought as interactive networks or, as Timothy Morton has put it, meshes that play an affording and constraining role with respect to the local manifestations of objects (205-206)." Objects use these networks to communicate information both internally and externally. Information is something that is constituted and contructed within the object: "information is not something that exists out there in the world, but is rather something that is constituted and constructed(198)".

The constitution and construction of information offers us a crossover toward epistemic thinking. Levi is not so much against epistemological investigations per se, it is the passivity of most of those investigations that he sees as problematic. As he states in an interview (ahb: here):


"Substance, I argue, is this structure of attractors or what Deleuze called a “multiplicity”. Under this construal, qualities turn out to be actualized points in phase space. In this way, I’m able to undermine the distinction between substance and quality that has vexed so much philosophy since Locke, but I am also able to abolish the distinction between accident and essence, insofar as qualities are actualized as a result of the affects or attractor structure of objects. We even get the beginnings of a realist epistemology in this conception of substance, insofar as part of knowing substance involves placing them in differential fields that allow attractors of substances to manifest themselves. In this regard, philosophy has conceived the activity of knowing in far too passive terms, privileging the gaze or regard of objects, ignoring how we must grock with objects to discover their nature or the differences they contribute to the world."

As he tells us the Democracy of Objects is concerned with the endo/exo internal/external sense of relations among objects:


"The Democracy of Objects will approach objects from three interrelated perspectives. After introducing the principles of onticology, it will explore the endo-relational structure of objects or their endo-consistency in terms of their structure as systems of attractors. The second part of the book will explore exo-relations or networks of objects in relation to one another. Here I am heavily indebted to Deleuze and Guattari and Latour. Clearly many of the conditions under which objects actualize a point in phase space are dependent on the object’s relation to other objects. The second part will thus explore these relations of evocation among objects, but will also examine those conditions under which objects come to form a system or organization amongst themselves that becomes self-sustaining and operationally closed from other objects. Finally, the third part of the book will examine the genesis of objects. Under certain conditions objects are pushed into new basins of attraction, generating new objects that have a substantial autonomy of their own."


I think that there is still a great need for honing the philosophical concepts of these various OOO projects in the future, but one thing we can all agree on is that without the notion of the autonomous object free of all relations we could have no real sense of object or relation to begin with. Without the generative capability of the withdrawn object being able to make distinctions productive of the gaps/cuts between observer/observed, endo/exo, or internal/external relations; as well as, the ability of objects to negotiate and resolve boundary issues between levels, there might have been no observer separated from its environment with the necessary self-reflexive capability of thought to negotiate the boundaries of being itself, ever. 

S.C. Hickman

A working outline of my future book...

A working outline of my future book:


Speculative Realism

Introduction: A Short History of a Misnomer

Part One: Toward a Theory of Objects
1. The Pre-Socratics: A Short history of Being
2. Plato and Aristotle: Form and Substance
3. Pre-critical Metaphysics: Scholastics, Rationalists, and Empiricists

(Interlude: The Enlightenment: Kant and the Epistemological Turn)

Part Two: Being and Event 
4. The Continental Tradition: Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan
5. The Analytic Divide: Neo-Kantians, Logic, Pragmatism
6. Signs of the Time: Badiou, Latour, Laruelle  

Part Three: The Speculative Turn
7. Speculative Materialism: Meillassoux, Zizek, Brassier
8. Neo-Idealism: Whitehead, Deleuze, Grant
9. Object-Oriented Philosophies: Harman, Bryant, Bogost, Morton

Postlude: Society, Change, and the Politics of the Event