There are five major debates still raging with/in and with/out the object-oriented studies spectrum, in my opinion, years after the inception of the objectal trajectory of speculative realism. When we pull back the curtain, we see (in no particular order of importance):

  • Aesthetic criticism: By ‘aesthetic’, I mean sensory. That said, I find virtue in relating this question back to standard aesthetic discussions, such as art and textual critique, if only to employ a common site of analysis. Recently, I’ve argued against the idea of an object-oriented literary criticism, claiming that the idea of the ‘literary’ reduces the being of a text to a meta-aporia about signification. An alternative move promoted by Levi Bryant and Eileen Joy, however, seeks a middle ground between postmodern historicism and deconstruction (new historicism and new criticism, more specifically), in which the text is viewed as a thing-in-itself productive of multiple histories, an autopoietic actant capable of affecting other entities, similar to other objects. Criticism, then, moves from an excavation of meaning to an exploration of construction, of what is “built” from the the relations into which a text enters. This is an invaluable move away from what Bryant and Joy call ‘humanist criticism’, or reading strategies that close textual being by positing texts as carriers for encoded discursive meaning. For me, though, this brilliant–and I mean that sincerely–strategy recuperates textual affectivity within the frame of a conscious reader, albeit in a radically pluralized form. While disavowing authorial intent in favor of machinic productivity, anti-humanist criticism nevertheless avoids the becoming of a text, sytematically or objectally, by positing, say, The Brothers Karamazov as a homogenous entity, sans self-generated spatiotemporal specificity. Sans anatomy. Sans any anthrodecentric relation, like signifier to shape. In contrast, I contend that object-oriented ontology–and perhaps all aesthetic criticism–signals the birth and primacy of ‘object criticism’, which focuses on the point of relation, or translation, between the text-in-itself and other entities that it contacts. There is certainly a retained history here; Bibles have circulated throughout many assemblages in varying historical epochs, with consequences for humans and nonhumans alike. And Bryant and Joy’s lit crit proposal is exactly the kind of analytical methodology necessitated for object-oriented literary insight. What is important to remember, I maintain, is that it is only one type of relation involving the text, though admittedly an important one. In its simultaneous restriction of textual relation within the realm of human reading and exploration of textual affectivity on entities other than human consciousness, such a reading can be described as post-correlationist. It is the perfect complement to object criticism (a term that does not imply criticism of objects categorically, I should note), which investigates the way sensibility is partitioned at the point of translation between objects extant within a regime of attraction, where the text is merely one relating entity among others. To extend this discussion into a controversial realm, I’ll pose the following question: How would an object-oriented ontologist answer the question, “What is art?”

  • Fictional objects: For me, the whole game. Briefly, any metaphysics of objects must not only account for putatively imagined objects–like citizenship, security, and borders–to reflect an accurate representation of agential artifacts, but the manner in which these objects are made or become real for real objects, or circulate within the real world. Otherwise, one is left with a metaphysical parlance that can only account for shapative difference and becoming, and recuperates being, experience, and potential solely within objectal form. And that wouldn’t be much of a realist philosophy, would it? That would just be an utterly nonsensical variant of accidentalist naiveté in which the politics of be(com)ing is viewed as inconsequential.

  • Mereology: If you’ve never seen this word, here is a quick gloss: It indicates the relationship of parts to each other and the larger wholes that they comprise. One of the problems that comes up in discussions of object-oriented philosophies, particularly with newcomers, is the challenge of accounting for the independence of so-called substrate objects, like atoms, molecules, or cells. Since object-oriented ontology contends that every object is withdrawn from the relations into which it enters and retreats, and therefore obtains a reality in excess of any relation or set of relations, it must also account for how the being of a whole entity and its constituent parts can retain a non-relational reality without falling apart. To be fair, one could argue that real objects exist on equal footing with all other objects in the world because of relational equivalency, where no one relation is privileged above others. From what Levi Bryant calls a subtractive object-orientation, however, objects must be able to exist independent of their relations, meaning that whole entities and component entities each have autonomous being (in fact, the concept of a ‘whole’ entity can be somewhat misleading, in this sense, since the parts of one entity are wholes in and of themselves). As Bryant notes, this is easy enough to realize in the realm of social relations. I am currently writing this post from Hawai’i Nei, the state in which I reside. I, as a citizen of Hawai’i, am, thus, a part of my state, but the state would continue to exist, even if I moved. As a another example, consider Facebook. As someone with a Facebook account, I am (a little ashamedly) part of the Facebook community, but deactivating my account doesn’t destroy Facebook’s being. It’s a bit harder to conceptualize at the organic level, where hearts, tissues, and chloroplast would seem to be causal vectors of organic being. Yet, upon closer inspection, this is not the case. Much of a human’s body chemistry, to cite just one case, changes almost completely every seven years. Epidermal cells are lost; new ones take their place. According to my current age, that’s happened to me four times since my first birthday. Nonetheless, here I am. We can deduce, then, that a person’s body exists as an entity apart from its cells. The same if true of the cells, of course, as they don’t cease being cells just because they’ve been flaked off by scratching an itch or placed under a microscope. What is difficult to think through, though, is numerological mereology–how many objects comprise a syzygy, even at the level of every human consciousness?–and what justifications can be extrapolated from mereological analysis to describe the process of objectal formation and motility? We’re not used to thinking of armies, democracies, and ecosystems as objects with their own agency, independent of how their parts function. From the perspective of object-oriented mereology, however, this is exactly the case. Want an even more striking brain-teaser? Consider the mereology of a fictional object, like Emma Bovary or national security. Weird, huh?

  • Ontopolitics: Philosophy for philosophy’s sake has its place. On the other hand, I’ve said on several occasions, “Philosophy that breeds complacency endangers all being, all forms of being, so that even the possibility of being collapses under its own immovable weight.” Deliberately hyperbolic, the line is meant to indicate that philosophizing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Whether one is thinking in an Ivy League office or Tahrir Square, the space in which thought transpires is informed by (or relates to, if we’re being properly object-oriented) other objects in motion, assemblages, and systems. Many object-oriented theorists (especially beyond the big four), however, are reluctant to bring object-oriented research into the political spectrum, I assume for fear that doing so will unnecessarily politicize a ‘first principles’ movement. Object-oriented ontology doesn’t lead to any specific political commitments, after all, and more mainstream ontopolitical critiques are often predicated on the systems philosophies object-oriented theory stands against. Yet, suppression can’t be wished away on a magical (belief) carpet. And an object-orientation is radically democratic, in its aggressive insistence on equality, equality, equality. All beings existing on an equal plane, and all that. If OOO is going to continue flourishing, it’s practitioners, in my view, should embrace its emancipatory potential, even if mainstream political writers don’t always replicate the movement’s standard fare. Which brings me to my next point…

  • (Non-)ontological pluralization: More practical than theoretical, one can increasingly question the relation of object-oriented ontology to other philosophical schools of thought. Considered the most visible–and controversial–strain of speculative realism, OOO is not the only object-oriented theory gaining traction in academic halls, which have seen the emergence of vibrant materialism (Jane Bennett), thing theory (Bill Brown), and agential realism (Karen Barad), to name just a few. The concern, here, is the extent to which each of these ideas can coexist. In other words, does OOO’s emphasis on being occlude insights and/or engagement with other theories of objectality? I mention this concern because of a recent conflagration over questions posed by Jussi Parikka. If you’re unaware of what happened, Parikka, author of Insect Media, among other things, raised several concerns about OOO’s approach, for instance the extent to which it can speak to science and its utility for media studies. None of the questions were hostile; at least half of the responses from non-OOO’ers were. In the world of scholarship, we debate our theories with a passion that, at times, borders on zealotry. That’s great, so long as it remains agonistic, not antagonistic. At the heart of the tension, it seems, is the question of whether or not OOO is a systematic philosophy, a notion I reject. OOO’ers often appear systematic in the presentation of their ideas–Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology, Levi Bryant’s use of systems theory in formulating ‘onticology’–but one of the primary virtues of OOO, to me, is its injunctions against univocity. Makes sense, right? If there can be no single substance undermining objects, then there can be no single utterance articulating totalized understanding of objectality. Too often, though, misunderstanding obscures OOO’s inhered tendency toward democratization and the promiscuity of being. To me, there is one, and only one, criteria for obtaining the title ‘object-oriented thinker’: anthrodecentrism. Membership in the field of object-oriented studies (that’s studies, meaning “students” in the broad sense) requires an attempt to dislodge humans from positions of theoretical privilege. To be an object-oriented ontologist, one must decentralize being away from the exultation of human being, and there are a number of currently agreed upon points of reference for doing so (preservation of finitude, withdrawal, critique of correlationism, etc.). With the exception of disavowing correlationism and anthrodecentrism, however, whether or not those points will remain the standard for perpetuity is an open question, as is their relative importance to any given OOO’er. Therefore, we’re compelled to speak to one another across disciplinary and theoretical boundaries, while concurrently confronting our own philosophical biases. Otherwise, we slip into reification, and foreclose the richness of our own theses from benefiting, and benefiting from, other forms of inquiry, sinking our philosophies beneath the same sands that undermine objects themselves.

What am I missing?

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.”


I Dream Of Objects


Two views. Pick one. Or none, if you disagree with both.

Dreams as affective manifestations: Virtually no one denies that dreams can be affective, productive of nonconscious phenomenological vectors capable of precipitating new patterns of thought and forms of relation. But are they fully embodied and substantive objects, things-in-themselves retaining their own autonomous and withdrawn inner being? According to Levi Bryant, the answer is no. For an entity to be deemed objectal, Bryant’s argument holds, its being must exist independent of all other entities. Full stop.

Since dreams are dependent upon the being of a dreamer, neurological impulses, semantic memories, neocortices, and the like, dreams cannot enter into, be extricated from, or form relations with other objects, and are, thus, reduced to the status of qualia, or ‘local manifestations’, an animation of qualities expressed by objects interacting within a specific and fragile spatiotemporal configuration, one that is broken upon the dissipation of the dream or the act of waking. From this view, dreams do not possess difference or becoming apart from the material difference effected by the entities from which it is drawn. And since, for Bryant, being is difference, dreams cannot be said to possess autonomous being, no matter how forceful their emotional residue may be.

Dreams as material objects: Claiming that dreams are nothing more than ‘local manifestations’ involves denying the mereology of dreams-in-themselves. If we grant that whole objects are existentially severable from and ontologically inexhaustible by their constituent parts, then we can say that dreams are quasi-imag(in)ed beings comprised of neurological and psychoemotive bits, made intelligible in the way that other mental manifestations, conscious or otherwise, are presenced and, for that matter, withdrawn. We get hung up on the putative immateriality of dreams, which appears to foreclose standard modes of sensory perception. Yet, at some level, dreams are ‘percevied’, inasmuch as they produce memories and corporeal effects–ever wake up shaking, following a powerful nightmare? Once we dismiss the correlationist circle–dreams exist for no other entity than the dreamer, who only has access to meta-cognized oneirological ideation–we’re left with the the possibility of dreams as agential beings, whose existence exceeds qualitative apprehension. Dreams cannot even be denounced as pure products of consciousness, in light of nonconscious biological factors involved in their fruition.

Borrowing from Ian Bogost‘s phenomenological interrogation of video game characters, we can ask the question: What is the real dream? Is it the dragon that chases me as I sleep? The electrical flow of information between the hippocampus and neocortex? Protoconscious processes that suppress the release of norepinephrine and serotonin? Sublated experience and neuroses? Perhaps the answer is, as Bogost would hold for Mario or Zelda, that all of these are the dream, meaning that all of these entities exist immanent to one another, such that no one entity is singled out as being more ‘real’ than its counterparts and relata. Like Zelda, the dream is real for each of its aforementioned components, leaving the sleeping dreamer as just one object among many toward which the dream gestures, distorts, and translates into its own terms. Dreampomorphizes, as Timothy Morton would say.

Your thoughts?