According to prevailing astrophysical consensus, our universe began with a Big Bang approximately 13.7 billion years ago. In that moment, say cosmologists, the universe expanded rapidly from an extremely hot and dense singularity, eventually cooling enough to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles. Over thousands of years, these particles—protons, electrons, and neutrons—combined to form atoms, the building blocks of matter. The first atomic element to be produced was hydrogen, clouds of which fused together through gravity to form stars. Other, heavier elements coalesced within stars or as a result of supernovae, eventually leading to the isotropic universe we view today.
While this thesis may be conventional wisdom for cosmologists, it presents a challenge to object-oriented ontology: How might an object-orientation account for the originary singularity of the Big Bang, as well as the plurality of beings to which it gave rise and their existential continuity over shifting spatiotemporal conditions? Their evolution and, in some cases, destruction? In other words, what role does the concept of ‘becoming’ play in object-oriented thought, if any?
It’s not an easy, or trivial, question, since any philosophy that claims to equalize the field of relations between objects, humans included, must explain the possibility and occurrence of change. A substance metaphysics that disregards change quickly collapses into the quasi-Latourian view that reality is composed of static spatiotemporal ephemera replicating themselves from one moment to the next. Here, real entities are reduced to discrete instants, relegating any idea of a sustained and affected essence to the dustbin. On the other hand, as Graham Harman has shown, the all-too-common theory that objects are mere phenomenological effects of underlying processes is similarly repulsive to an object-oriented philosophy, in its reduction of reality to the process of transformation, such that only ‘becoming’ is real, while any given substance in-itself is merely an illusion. Moreover, processual becoming is often coupled with a single foundational substance, like Whitehead’s panexperiential God, further undermining the existence of objects as fully agential, ontologically inexhaustible beings.
What, then, is an object-oriented thinker to do? At least four possibilities emerge. First, one can reject sustained becoming in favor of ‘accidentalism’, whereby changes occur purely through objectal encounters. From this position, becoming is not something that unfolds internal to an object, but results from the inscription of one object upon another. When rains pours down upon a rock, for example, it physically weathers the rock, however slightly, into an altered state. Yet, the fundamental being or essence of the rock is not affected by the rain, nor is its internal configuration. What changes, instead, are the rock’s—and rain’s—external contours. In this way, accidentalist becoming is restricted to what might be called the shapative properties of an object, and entails a privileging of Aristotelian formal causation.
Second, one could couple accidentalist becoming with materialist causation, extending the impact of an encounter to the material composition of an object. From this vantage point, when rain pours down upon a rock, the relata are impacted at the constitutional level. Case in point: Chemical oxidation, in which a metal, such as iron, comes into contact with water, oxygen, or other strong oxidants, like salt, causing the transfer of electrons from iron to oxygen, creation of carbonic acid, and bonding of liberated oxygen and dissolved iron to form iron oxide. This corrosive process, commonly called “rusting,” changes both the shape and molecular structure of the entities involved in the electrochemical relation, consummating in a process of material transmogrification, or changes to an object’s matter. While rust is an explicit example of material becoming, one could argue that all relations—including social relations, as Marx demonstrated—involve material interactions and that becoming, therefore, always implicates material effects.
A third approach adopts the materialist position, but from within the context of systems philosophy. Primarily associated with Levi Bryant, who coined the term object-oriented ontology, this approach views the becoming and identity of an object as one and the same. In Bryant’s ontology, objects are entropic systems, perpetually under threat of breaking apart. In order to prevent disintegration, objects employ a variety of regulative practices to maintain structural integrity. At the same time, however, they develop internally and through encounters with other objects, and are individuated within a non-teleological temporality that is relative to the systemic events necessary for replication of an object across objective space and time. An obvious example, here, would be a human, whose corporeal existence, even after death, requires the functioning of a number of biological systems. As a child, a human exhibits certain cognitive and physical traits, such as the ability to crawl and mimic its surroundings. As the child develops into an adult, however, its systems change due to interactions with other objects, as well as the processes of aging and maturation. Becoming, then, is the development of an object and its systems, as they continually acquire new powers, while simultaneously forfeiting many old ones.
Each of the three accounts of becoming described so far has its virtues. Accidentalist and materialist becoming mesh well with physicalist theories of scientific reasoning. Systemic becoming, on the other hand, broadens the scope of change to include the internal dynamics of objects, where becoming transpires both internally and externally over multiple spaces, places, and temporalities. Still, all three versions have their detractors. The accidentalist and materialist approaches fail to adequately capture the mereology of objects, or the relations of parts of an object to an object-in-itself. Critics of systemic development, for their part, claim that it runs the risk of adumbrating the withdrawn being that grants an object its independence beneath an ad nauseum series of processual fluctuations, only a select portion of which are encountered by objects relating to each other at any given time.
To that last point, I say that an ontology that valorizes one set of encounters over others—like relations between cell phones and batteries at the expense of graphite anodes and lithium cobalt cathodes, or vice versa—discounts the complex mereological interplay involved in objectal structures. To account for both the mereology and independence of entities, I propose a fourth becoming construct, which I call differential becoming. Drawing upon the materialist and systems approach, differential becoming sees objectal assemblages as actively homeostatic, or constantly re-ordering their parts to maintain equilibrium. This intrinsic re-ordering of an assemblage may be internally or externally instigated. In contrast with the systemic account of becoming, however, differential becoming holds that objects maintain a common withdrawn being, even as its parts relate to one another and to a larger, comprised object. Becoming, from this perspective, is not a process external to objects, or a dynamic sea in which objects submerge and float over time. Instead, becoming is posited as an inhered potential, or ‘power’, of objects. Again, consider a child that matures into adulthood, passing through several developmental stages along the way. Whereas the systemic account defines becoming as the development of the child into an adult who manifests new, “developed” powers at both the mico- and macro-objectal level, the differential account argues that capacity for development is a power of the child’s withdrawn being. Most importantly, differential becoming emphasizes the affirmative difference made by an object, even unto itself. And it’s here that systemic and differential becoming sharply diverge. In an object-oriented systems theory, being is difference, and difference precedes knowledge. For the differentialist, on the other hand, differences produced by and within an object precede epistemological considerations, but are not reducible to the withdrawn being of an object-in-itself. Rather, difference is theorized as a positive effect of objects generating their own spatiotemporality. In other words, difference differentiates itself from being as an entity shapes the time and space through which it moves and within which it relates to other beings. Put simply, proponents of systemic becoming are right when they say, “To be is to differ.” From the differential perspective, however, their adage needs a slight revision: “To differ is to become, and to become is, perhaps, the fundamental power of all objects existing equally on an immanent plane of being.”