An Introduction to Levi R. Bryant’s Virtual Proper Being

In The Democracy of Objects Levi R. Bryant explains that

…the substantiality of objects is not a bare substratum, but rather an absolutely individual system or organization of powers. Powers are the capacities of an object or what it can do. The powers of an object are never something that is directly manifested in the world. And if this is so, then this is because the qualities of an object are only ever local manifestations of the object’s power. That is, the domain of power possessed by an object is always greater than any local manifestation or actualization of an object. (Bryant: The Democracy of Objects, 89)

What Bryant means is that objects are not merely composed of a substratum such as the atom, molecule etc—what science discovers as a pre-formatted, font of sophisticated processes from which stuff emerges—but in addition, that there is some capacity aside from this, an inherent potential of objects to be unpredictable.

It is their unpredictability that enables their perturbation of other objects. Bryant calls this virtual proper being. Virtual proper being is this shadowy residence of volcanic potential. To produce a “local manifestation”, an object with qualities, which can be subject to change, an object must be inexhaustible. A glass jar becomes dislodged in the cupboard & when you open the cupboard it falls out with a crash of glass & jam. We forget the viscous properties, we don’t daily experience jammy shards of glass.

We adapt, no one is saying we can’t or don’t, but it is an inconvenience because of the unexpectedness. The objects in the cupboard became dislodged somehow…you think nothing of what could have, before the event of the jam jar falling, been the agentic activity that could have caused such a thing to happen. It did though & it does. Objects surprise us. They have inexhaustible tendencies, which confound us sometimes. We ourselves as objects prove this virtual proper being: we don’t even know ourselves. We don’t know ourselves because while we certainly factor in a great deal of epistemic conditioning, psychology, culture & what not, we don’t factor in the nonhuman agencies which enable us to be res cogitans: bacteria, neurons, cells, DNA, molecules, oxygen & more besides.

We are a host to parasites in some sense. In any other form we might use bleach against them, or prevent them accessing us via a mask. But they are inside us, they are us. This is to realize the unexpected. That there are things that decide me outside the periphery of my decision-making faculties. I am facilitated in my being by beings so unlike me they astound me with what Bryant calls “volcanic powers”.

…I refer to the virtual proper being of substance as consisting of endo-relations, an endo-structure, or an endo-composition. The point is not that all substances are spatial […] but rather that multiplicity allows us to think individual substance in a purely immanent fashion detached from any sort of global embedding space or set of exo-relations. While substances can and do enter into relations with other substances, their being qua substance is not constituted by these exo-relations. Exo-relations often play a crucial role in the qualities a substance comes to embody at the level of local manifestations, but the being of substance in its substantiality is something other than these exo-relations.” (Bryant, 107).

The endo-relations of an object are its substrata: that which it is fundamentally composed of. This is not disturbed by exo-relations if there is no cause. A red book remains a book liable to change colour but not its form. If it is pulped it is only a pulped book so long as we know its original form. It remains what it was made from. Pulped paper is pulped paper. A red book is a red book. The exo-relation enables change to its qualities: we can cover the book, we can colour it differently, we can write inside it. But its endo-relations are fixed: it is fundamentally something that it is not. & yet there it is, white paper, shimmery cover. These are its local manifestations. How many different encounters it can have with other objects, how they can affect it, is precisely what OOO means when it talks about radical withdrawnness, or virtual proper being.

Objects then are not exhausted by our uses for them. Rust gathering around an aerosol can in a forest somewhere is rusting fine without us. The mycorrhizal networks of forests plow on regardless of us. What the withdrawnness of objects informs us about everything, is that there are unique relationships between things we never think about. This is good. It means we have plenty to pay attention to, or not. The not-I going on without us is regulating our capacity to not pay attention to it. Those of us who do exist in a rich ecology, where things surprise, wonderfully, exaggeratedly so, making us appreciate that our world is composed of jostling, affective objects vying for attention. This is a good thing.

8 Comments

  1. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you! And you know why I’m going to say it!

    EVERYTHING surprises us, moment by moment. It’s just that we hardly ever realise we’re being surprised. Next time you have jammy shards all over the floor, notice what is surprising you – it may actually have apparently very little to do with jammy shards.

    “…there are unique relationships between things we never think about.” There is an old question that one can attach to that statement. You’ll earn points if you can guess what it is.

    1. Well no I do not know what you are going to say, you are among everything, an inexhaustible object, haha. Your usual phenomenological insights certainly apply here.
      & I am afraid I don’t know the old question either, very curious though.

      1. It’s the old “If a tree falls…” conundrum. If we never think about the relationships, do they actually exist? Actually a better question is whether “relationships” is a human concept and therefore inadequate to express what may or may not exist outside our immediate experience.

      2. I think you’re just trying to use a different word to describe the same thing (a bit like Jaffa Cakes and VAT). That IS a problem: we are stuck with metaphors for everything.

      3. But even that is a metaphor. It stands for something it cannot adequately describe and which you (or I) can neither fully understand nor verify. It’s neat, but you cannot afford to make a mantra out of it. You’re coming back to it – saying it’s what you’re comfortable with – after having suggested two other terms with the same problem. It’s the curse we suffer from of trying to pin things down, trying to force them to stop surprising us. Why are we afraid of that surprise?

      4. You are quite right. I like the term symbiotic real as it is informed by an association to metaphor, which both Harman (who dedicates a chapter to it in ‘OOO’) & Morton who tacitly does so by referring to literature a lot. But I do agree with you, to a point. I guess I need an informed term if only to be able to communicate that we fear what Morton in ‘Humankind’ calls the “surprisingly surprising’.

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