S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
S.C. Hickman

Levi R. Bryant: The Democracy of Objects - A Tentative Reading

Something came up in a conversation I had with Daniel Sacilotto on a post he had, which discusses Slovoj Zizek's critique of Ray Brassier: Žižek Against Brassier: On Conditions for Realism. I mentioned that it seemed Zizek had fallen into the trap of what Levi R. Bryant terms the epistemic fallacy:

“What the epistemic fallacy identifies is the fallacy of reducing ontological questions to epistemological questions, or conflating questions of how we know with questions of what beings are. In short, the epistemic fallacy occurs wherever being is reduced to our access to being.” (Bryant, L., The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press 2011, p. 60.)

Daniel's reply to this was:

"I think Levi is correct in insisting on the necessity to distinguish between epistemological and ontological questions. But I also think, like Brassier and Sellars, that it is just as pernicious to reduce epistemological questions to ontological questions: the conflation goes both ways. So just like there is an epistemic fallacy, there is also an ontological fallacy."

It seems of late that both sides of the speculative community sometimes fall into one or the other of these traps, either reducing epistemological questions to the ontic, or reducing ontological questions to the epistemic. Yet, what caught my eye in Daniel's replay is his use of the phrase "necessity to distinguish between epistemological and ontological questions", which is the fundamental philosophical abstraction of marking a distinction, or the recognition of difference. It seems at times that neither side is able to bridge the gap between their respective domains, which would involve thinking about thinking, rather than always reducing the ideal of thinking and being are the same, or that thinking and being are utterly and forever separate, or that only the gap between thinking and being is essential to our thoughts about either thinking and being. Gotthard Gunther in his 1970 paper "Cognition and Volition" once stated the obvious: "We do not have a theory of the mechanism of thinking. If we had one we could have built computers with hetero-reference and self-reference that think like us long ago. But our present computers are only auto-referential. They have no awareness of the difference between their so-called thought processes and what these processes semantically refer to." He went on to explicate the basic theorem: "Subjectivity is a phenomenon distributed over the dialectic antithesis of the Ego as the subjective subject and the Thou as the objective subject, both of them having a common mediating environment." The important thing in the statement is not the discussion of subjective and objective poles of the Subject, but the "common mediating environment" within which they both interact. When Gunther is describing the need for a theory of the mechanism of thinking, because computers have no "awareness of the difference between their so called thought processes and what these processes semantically refer to" we begin to understand what self-referentiality is.

The Democracy of Objects

Levi R. Bryant in a penetrating discussion on the life and work of Niklas Luhmann, whose thinking on sociological systems makes 'distinction' and 'self-referentiality' pertinent, states in his book The Democracy of Objects what is " important point here is that the distinction between system and environment is self-referential." Levi in his discussion of Luhmann's critique of ontology - in which the latter implies that “ontology is understood to be a certain form of observing and describing, to wit, that form that consists of the distinction between being and nonbeing” - tells us that the  "point is that a particular distinction precedes the identity of an entity, such that the identity of an entity is an effect of the distinction that allows for observation, not a substantial reality that precedes observation."  This centering on 'distinction' as the differentiating process that separates a system from its environment comes from George Spencer-Brown's calculus of indication in which he first stipulated the injunction: "Draw a distinction." Spencer-Brown in Laws of Form in stated that Form  at once Observer and Observed, and is also the creative act of making an observation: "...the first distinction, the Mark and the observer are not only interchangeable, but, in the form, identical." As Levi observes:

"There's a very real sense in which distinction is “transcendental” with respect to indication. Form is the condition under which indication is possible. As a consequence, the indicated does not precede the distinction, but is the condition under which the indicated comes into being for the system drawing the distinction. The point, of course, is that while distinctions or forms obey rigorous laws once made, the founding distinction itself is contingent in that other distinctions could have always been made." Yet, as Levi points out this kind of thinking leads to what he terms the epistemic fallacy. In section 1.5 of the first chapter of his book Levi discusses this in detail:

"A critique of the epistemic fallacy and how it operates in philosophy does not amount to the claim that epistemology or questions of the nature of inquiry and knowledge are a fallacy. What the epistemic fallacy identifies is the fallacy of reducing ontological questions to epistemological questions, or conflating questions of how we know with questions of what beings are. In short, the epistemic fallacy occurs wherever being is reduced to our access to being. Thus, for example, wherever beings are reduced to our impressions or sensations of being, wherever being is reduced to our talk about being, wherever being is reduced to discourses about being, wherever being is reduced to signs through which being is manifest, the epistemic fallacy has been committed."

Obviously object-oriented ontology is against all reductions or conflations of thinking to being, whether in the idealist or materialist mode of a reduction of being to ideas (Idealism), or of a reduction of being to material things (Materialism). What the ontologist seeks is the independence of all being from thought for us or the given. The ontologist seeks to divest philosophy of category of the 'human' along with all anthropocentric visions or projects, one that would leave the thinking of being outside of the need for an observer/observed ratio. Is this possible? Levi after a lengthy discourse on virtual proper being and local manifestations (of which I will not give a complete survey) states:

"...so long as we remain within the framework of representation, asking how we mirror or reflect objects, we have posed the questions of epistemology poorly. The logic of representation, based as it is on visual metaphors of reflecting and mirroring, raises only the question of whether there is a similitude between the representation and the represented. As such, it necessarily misses the field of exo-relations and inter-actions among objects in the production of local manifestations. What onticology instead recommends is a particular attentiveness to fields of action among objects that enter into exo-relations with one another, examining how these inter-actions produce a variety of local manifestations in a diffraction pattern."

Levi tells us that objects are not constituted by their relations to the rest of the world, instead we must distinguish between objects and their relations and to do this he distinguishes between endo-relations and exo-relations: "Endo-relations constitute the internal structure of objects independent of all other objects, while exo-relations are relations that objects enter into with other objects." What is important here is that Levi acknowledges the fact that objects are structured ( scientific realism? ), and that objects carry on relations or communications both internally (endo-relations) and externally (exo-relations). Levi reminds us that there is an asymmetrical relation or formal distinction between an object and its qualities, and that substances can exist independent of their qualities but that qualities cannot exist independent of substance. He makes an acute observation saying that "insofar as objects are never identical to their qualities, insofar as they always harbor a volcanic reserve in excess of their qualities, they perpetually withdraw from their qualities such that they never directly manifest themselves in the world. As Harman remarks, it's as if all objects are vacuums populating the universe. It is precisely for this reason that the being of substance is essentially split."

Oddly this term vacuums populating the universe made me think of those unique entities that exist as the engines of difference at the center of even our own Milky Way galaxy, the black hole. In reference to the split state of objects referred to above by Harman I began thinking of what is termed the black hole information paradox.The black hole information paradox results from the combination of quantum mechanics and general relativity. It suggests that physical information could permanently disappear in a black hole, allowing many physical states to evolve into the same state. This is controversial because it violates a commonly assumed tenet of science—that in principle complete information about a physical system at one point in time should determine its state at any other time. A fundamental postulate of quantum mechanics is that complete information about a system is encoded in its wave function. The evolution of the wave function is determined by a unitary operator, and unitarity implies that information is conserved in the quantum sense.
There are two main principles in play: quantum determinism, and reversibility. Quantum determinism means that given a present wave function, its future changes are uniquely determined by the evolution operator. Reversibility refers to the fact that the evolution operator has an inverse, meaning that the past wave functions are similarly unique. The combination of the two means that information must always be preserved.
Starting in the mid 1970s, Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein put forward theoretical arguments based on general relativity and quantum field theory that appeared to be inconsistent with information conservation. Specifically, Hawking's calculations indicated that black hole evaporation via Hawking radiation does not preserve information. Today, many physicists believe that the holographic principle (specifically the AdS/CFT duality) demonstrates that Hawking's conclusion was incorrect, and that information is in fact preserved. In 2004 Hawking himself conceded a bet he had made, agreeing that black hole evaporation does in fact preserve information. (see Black hole information paradox)

This long excursion into black hole theory returns me to what Levi termed the "paradox of substance" in which Edmund Burke characterized substance as split between qualities and substantiality. The confusion lies Levi tells us  only when we begin from the standpoint of epistemology. Epistemology starts from what is given in experience and this leads to the astonishing claim that the object we experience is its qualities and that it is something radically other than its qualities. A paradox indeed. But, Levi maintains, if we being instead with ontology we realize that substance is such that it can actualize different qualities at different times (Aristotle), and that it can fail to actualize qualities (Bhaskar), we can now argue that the very essence or structure of substance lies in self-othering and withdrawal. This idea of self-othering and withdrawal are central to the arguments of Object-Oriented theory and practice. If we take the arguments for the preservation of information in black holes seriously then we can understand what Levi means in discussing autopoietic systems theory and its account of operational closure:  First, the claim is that the operations of an autopoietic system refer only to themselves and are products of the system itself. Second, the claim is that autopoietic systems are closed in on themselves, that they do not relate directly to an environment, that they do not receive information from an environment. (Bryant, 4.1)  If all objects like my use of the black hole as object preserve information they do so under opertional closure a term coined by Niklas Luhmann:

"The description of a system as autopoietic, as autonomous, as operationally closed, refers to the network of its operations and not to the totality of all empirical conditions, that is, the world. The question is not how a system can maintain itself without any environmental support. Rather, it is what kind of operations enable a system to form a self-reproducing network which relies exclusively on self-generated information and is capable of distinguishing internal needs from what it sees as environmental problems(Luhmann, Operational Closure and Strutural Coupling: The Differntiation of the Legal System. 1420)."  

This leads Levi to ask the question: "If, then, objects or substances are operationally closed, if they only relate to themselves, how do objects interact?" To answer this questions he tells us that information is produced when a system or object is perturbed or irritated by another system or object. But as he states it we must proceed carefully because information "is not something that exists out there in the environment waiting to be received or detected." Neither is it something that is "exchanged between systems". Instead we must understand the information is system or object specific, that there is no pre-existent information. What we discover instead is that "information is constructed by systems". What is unique here is that perturbations become the ground for the production of information, and that this arises both from the environment itself and from within the internal mechanisms of the object. A key feature of all autopoietic systems Levi reminds us is "that they have the ability to develop new distinctions, thereby enhancing their capacity to be irritated or perturbed by other objects (Bryant, 4.2)." He elaborates on this: 

" This occurs in a variety of ways that are subject to very different degrees of freedom. Thus, for example, it is likely that many plants can only transform the distinctions through which it is possible for them to be irritated by their environment through evolutionary processes of random variation and natural selection. Throughout the animal world, we seem to get increasing degrees of freedom in forming new distinctions through developmental processes that take place through learning rather than innate structure. The same holds true of social systems. And finally, it appears that computers are slowly developing the ability to revise their own distinctions, broadening their ability to be irritated by their environment.(Bryant, 4.3)"

Yet, we should not bask in the sun of autopoietic theory Levi argues in a later section of his book saying that "autopietic theory tends toward a utopianism that ignores the material constraints on the activity of objects when objects enter into exo-relations with other objects (Bryant, 5.1)."   

Levi's central issue with autopoietic theory is that objects are treated as if they were observers and that they observe the world through their own distinctions, and that all "observers are treated as absolutely equal (Bryant, 5.1)." This observational stance within autopoitic theory tends toward a radical idealism, one in which "every entity, by virtue of its operational closure, fully constructs its own world (Bryant, 5.1)." Another problem arises with autopoietic theory in that its description of the internal mechanism of an entity tends "towards a conception of entities that carry out their functions in a purely frictionless space, where each entity is a complete sovereign encountering no constraints from the world around it (ibid)." Against such frictionless sovereignty of the object Levi maintains that "other objects and events in the environment of the object define a regime of attraction with respect to the object, creating regularities in the local manifestation of the object and producing constraints on what local manifestations are possible (Bryant, 5.1)." He further adds that these 'regimes of attraction' "should thus 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 (Bryant, 5.1)." Levi fills out the details of this in his book and I will not repeat the exercise in this post. At the end of this disquisition he argues that what onticology and object-oriented philosophy open up is a "vast and rich domain for thinking these strange structures of space and time." That what is important to recognized is that the "substantiality of objects lies not in their parts, but in their structure or organization..."(Bryant, 5.3).

In the final section of Levi's excellent book he relates the four thesis of Flat Ontology:

1. due to the split characteristic of all objects, flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself.

2. flat ontology signifies that the world or the universe does not exist.

3. following Harman, flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation.

4. flat ontology argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects. 

   - (Bryant, 6.1).

Ultimately the democracy of objects that Levi defends "is not the thesis that all objects contribute equally, but that all objects equally exist. In its ontological egalitarianism, what flat ontology thus refuses is the erasure of any object as the mere construction of another object(Bryant, 6.3)". 
This post cannot even begin to relate the arguments for or against such a project, all I've tried to do is to lay down the specifics of this unique vision and show forth the outlines of its energetic and powerful philosophy.

Tags: levi r. bryant, object-oriented philosophy, ray brassier

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