Becoming, Object-Oriented

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.”


Becoming A Lyrebird

Lyrebirds are among Australia’s most famous native species, owing largely to an ability to mimic the natural and synthetic sounds of their habitat. Equipped with the most complexly muscled syrinx of any passerine, or songbird, the lyrebird’s call commonly includes the individual songs of other birds, along with less familiar sounds, like chainsaws, car alarms, camera shutters, barking dogs, and the human voice. What awes us about the bird is not simply mimicry, however, but the process by which it sheds its metaphorical plumage to become something foreign, concurrently rendering and recasting the surrounding soundscape with such fidelity that most animals sharing space with it are fooled. In this way, the lyrebird points toward the potential of rhizometry–the capacity the conceive our world(s) horizontally, rather than hierarchically–to undermine the essentialized origins and destinations of identity, unveiling becoming as a universal processual flow through which supposedly fixed and pre-given assemblages may be changed.

Consider, then, the implications of the lyrebird for an ecopolitics reduced to a struggle against ecclesiasticized capitalist modernity, as was evinced by Donald Trump’s assertion  about the Environmental Protection Agency during the 2016 presidential elected that, once elected, he was “going to get rid of it in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.” (He’s well on his way to achieving that goal.) Rather than extol secular deconstruction over political ontotheology, the lyrebird croons about the relational expansion of potential into power when one becomes the other. As Deleuze and Guattari instruct:

A becoming is neither one nor two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between…a zone of proximity and indiscernability, a no-man’s land, a nonlocalizable relation sweeping up the two distant or contiguous points, carrying one into the proximity of the other–and border-proximity is indifferent to both contiguity and distance (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1987).

For the example cited above, a politics of becoming would carry environmental debates–from global climate change to the entrapment of nature-cultures within systems of biopolitical exploitation–into interstitial domains, where an intersubjective negotiation of identity can, like the fluid acoustic narrative of the lyrebird, enable coeval, but dissonant identities within pluralistic communities to carve space for a new political identities to be articulated. One thinks of the competing claims of protestors at Standing Rock, where privileged white entertainers mixed with abjected Native Americans–themselves a protestor population representing hundreds of tribes–to turn back the Dakota Access Pipeline under the appellation of “water protector.”

If all politics is identity politics–an idea we must take seriously in the Age of Trump–then we must also recall that subject positions, like borders, are nominal, not natural. Exploring our own capacity to become-other than the positions we currently occupy will be mandatory in confronting the challenges long, hard Trump years to come.


New Year’s Resolution: Better My Self(ie)


New Year’s is a time for reflecting on ourselves and resolving to close the gap between our ideal selves and our actual, drunken, midnight-kissed selves. About the self, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said:

The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities (Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus, 1980).

If the self is a blurred line between patterns of enfolded syntheses, as Deleuze suggests, then are ‘selfies’ a technomodern attempt to capture the singular conditions–the moment–in which such patterns produce sites of self-awareness or, alternatively, narcissistic attempts to reclaim the right to individuality from an identity politics under siege?

Or are they just a way to remind ourselves that memory still has meaning, even if it’s tipsy and huddled over a street that won’t stop spinning?