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.

between noisescapesilence

Haven’t written a poem for a while, but this has emerged in the last few weeks. Very much a sensory response manifesting out of my studies into my actual encounters & affiliation with a world of objects, object-sound, object-smell, object-taste.


between noisescapesilence
 
the extractor fan           in the bathroom
  is too loud     its             loudness has be-
    come an agentic                property,  I cannot see it otherwise than
      emerging out                       of brokenness. hearing:seeing.
        it has affected a                     trajectory            revealed a gap
          between it                                & a noisescape of disrepair.
            something has                              taken       a turn
              a hand played                             in anticipation.
                this is volume                          territory. the sound
              has surpassed                        all expectation.
            a broke-drone                       freakishly ornate
          in flakes of                          human skin
       & breath                             & germ.          cracking its knuckles
    as if to read                         the atmosphere
 of grey rooms:                 agencyactormeshworkfreak

A Brief Introduction to Object Oriented Ontology & Speculative Realism: The How of What

Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) challenges commonly held considerations towards what objects are and how they (inter)act in the world. Ecology, science, economics, art, architecture, and programming are core disciplines OOO utilizes. In OOO we encounter objects not only in rendered, physical, tactile modes, but in addition, processual, agentive & eventful modes. Human, a priori encounters with things, are radically altered when objects obtain equality, and hierarchies dismantled. My definition of ‘mode’ here, is taken from Jane Bennett: ‘What it means to be a “mode,” then, is to form alliances and enter assemblages: it is to mod(e)ify and be modified by others. The process of modification is not under the control of any one mode – no mode is an agent in the hierarchical sense.’[1] The polemic of whether things exist independent of the human mind (realism), or because of the human mind (idealism), resulted in the latter being firmly established in Western philosophy. OOO modifies this special ontological status of humans, encouraging a radical reorientation of all ontological statuses.

           This introduction condenses the dialogue between OOO thinkers Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett; as well as two thinkers from the Speculative Realism Movement, Manuel DeLanda and Tristan Garcia, and in addition, thing theorist Bill Brown. These thinkers are readily conversant, informing each other’s ontological ideas. They are often found in the bibliographies of each other’s books.

          How assemblages emerge out of various scales, from the microcosmic to the encountered reality of the everyday, is central to OOO. It is through assemblages that most of these thinkers express the importance of things in themselves, and further, how ecologies are composed by and compose themselves with assemblies of things. Objects and their processual ontologies, give things fungible properties, interchangeable within an assemblage. An atom, like qualia, moves between different things, yet things remain themselves.    

          OOO begins with Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002). Harman’s reading of Heidegger, encourages him ‘to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves.’[2] Harman’s ideas are a continuation of Heidegger’s discoveries into how objects are encountered in the world. I think it important to briefly outline Heidegger’s ontology.

          For Heidegger, objects are in one of two states, either they are ready-to-hand, which means they retreat into their function; or they are present-at-hand, which means they no longer function and no longer functioning, appear to us. Objects then, either function or are broken. Harman agrees there is no direct contact between things: ‘Reality is always radically different from our formulation of it, and is never something we encounter directly in the flesh, we must approach it indirectly. This withdrawal or withholding of properties from direct access is a central precept of OOO.’[3]  Timothy Morton talks more about this ‘central precept’, which

    Extends this irreducible darkness from subject-object relationships to object-object relationships. Objects encounter each other as operationally closed systems that can only (mis)translate one another. Causation is thus vicarious in some sense, never direct. An object is profoundly “withdrawn”—we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either.[4

Tristan Garcia interprets this ‘closed system’ similarly, but obtains access to the thing:

Being enters into a loop wherein being is not projected in itself, but cast outside itself. In our model, an arrow points inside to a circle – a thing – and then from this circle a second arrow points outside. Being comes inside a thing and being goes outside it. A thing is nothing other than the difference between being-inside and being-outside.[5]

Garcia allows ‘being’ to perforate ‘things’, so that it may oscillate between the outside and inside, of things. This access to the thing by being, is an attempt to access Harman’s ‘closed system’.

          Aesthetics, the arts and literature, are Harman’s methods (somewhat influenced by phenomenological speculations) for attempting to access the withdrawn (sensual) qualities of the real object. This is because they are not forms of knowledge, but rather, indirect means of expression. Harman uses metaphor as an example.[6] The terms ‘sensual qualities’ and ‘real object’ refer to Harman’s Quadruple Object,[7] which diagrammatically illustrates the tensions between objects.          

           Because ‘philosophy is not the handmaid of materialism’[8] Harman challenges what he calls ‘undermining’ in philosophy, which is the down-scaling of a thing to constituent parts, such as atoms or molecules. Because these scales are inaccessible to perception, they are discounted by Harman. He also dismisses ‘overmining’, which up-scales impact to anthropocentric influences alone. This resembles idealism, which problematically denies ‘any excess or surplus beyond such impact.’[9] The human holds the monopoly on meaning. This is especially problematic when it comes to nonhumans, considered in OOO to be integral and integrated into ecologies. Both ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ fail to render the potentialities of a thing or nonhuman, because they can’t express the tension between objects and qualities, which things and nonhumans react to.

          While Harman finds an effective means to access things through aesthetics and art, DeLanda’s access comes from materialism and science. Harman quotes DeLanda’s criticism of him in Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (2018): ‘I am not sure why Harman wants to stick to objects. I do not deny that objects exist…it is just that a full realist ontology must possess objects and events, with a process being a series of events.’[10]

          DeLanda has no problem with the withdrawn, indirectness of the thing, as things are assemblages. DeLanda’s influence is Deleuze & Guattari, who write about assemblages in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1988), explaining that, ‘an assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.’[11]

          DeLanda finds assemblages penetrate everywhere, like the rhizome. It is not a containing principle, where parts play a secondary role to the primary assemblage, but rather an encompassing principle without the need for subordination of the secondary to the primary; there need be no primary-secondary relationship whatsoever. Because DeLanda is ‘conceiving of the components of an assemblage as themselves assemblages.’[12] His conception of the thing is energized, oscillating multiple temporal and spatial scales, because included in the potential of a thing is an inherent processual ontology. What we see here is,

    A view of reality in which assemblages are everywhere, multiplying in every direction, some more viscous and changing at slower speeds, some more fluid and impermanent, coming into being almost as fast as they disappear. And at the limit, at the critical threshold when the diagrams of assemblages reach escape velocity, we find the grand cosmic assemblage, the plane of immanence, consistency, or exteriority.[13]

The reality of a thing is a consequence of a ‘material [and] energetic substratum’[14], which is precisely what Harman challenges in his criticism of ‘undermining’ in philosophy. DeLanda, by positing that a thing must have material and energetic properties, implements the atomic and molecular scale of matter as evidence of these properties in the emergence of assemblages by assemblages. The essential difference between Harman and DeLanda is that the latter thinks philosophy a form of knowledge, so theorizes in a scientific mode; whereas the former thinks philosophy part of aesthetics, not knowledge. 

          DeLanda has to explain how something can be both singular and multiple, both heterogeneous and homogeneous. He explains that ‘all assemblages are unique historical individuals.’[15] ‘Individual’ is synonymous with person, but DeLanda assures us ‘this is just a quirk of ordinary language.’[16] For DeLanda,

    As an ontological category the term ‘individual’ has no preference for any one particular level of scale. It is perfectly possible to speak of individual communities, individual organizations,individual cities. Similarly, we can, without invoking any undesirable connotations, speak of individual atoms, individual molecules, individual cells, and individual organs. [17]

          This ‘level of scale’ is important for constructing a realist ontology of assemblage theory, as what fills the scale is perforated and permeable. Everything accesses everything else in an assemblage.

          DeLanda, unlike Harman accepts reality as a consequence of an energetic substratum. Jane Bennett’s conception of assemblages is similar to DeLanda’s, Bennett is also influenced by Deleuze and Guattari. Bennett explains: ‘Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within.’[18] In Bennett’s work, elements of Harman and DeLanda fuse together. Bennett is more emphatic than DeLanda about things. Things for Bennett are ‘vibrant’, this registers aesthetically. Harman would call them ‘sensual qualities.’ Where Bennett closely connects with DeLanda is in the energetic ‘substratum’, which ‘confound[s]’ things. Harman is keen to maintain the ‘autonomy’ of things ‘despite their interrelations.’[19] Harman’s response, ‘is that OOO means ‘object’ in an unusually wide sense: an object is anything that cannot be entirely reduced either to the components of which it is made or to the effects that it has on other things.’[20]

          The assemblage is a mereological matter. Morton brings this into consideration with his challenge to the popular maxim, ‘the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts’. For Morton, this makes little sense if the whole is itself a thing. Therefore, Morton reorients the maxim to ‘the whole is always less than the sum of its parts’,[21] so that any primary containing principle is reinstituted according to the interconnections of things/parts. Depending on the scale of the ontological system, depends on how parts are conceptualized into wholes. If assemblages are assembled with assemblages, the relationship of the part to the whole is more complex than a mere whole containing everything, with its holistic connotations.

           ‘Flat ontology’ was first used by DeLanda.[22] However, Tristan Garcia’s extensive study of things in Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014), offers a more rendered treatment. I want now to connect flat ontologies to assemblages.

            Garcia’s mereological [formal study of parts and wholes] ruminations begin with a criticism of division and what he calls an ‘epidemic of things.’[23] There is an ethic at work here, applicable to ecology and politics, which both Morton and Bennett concern themselves with. Garcia explains, in a tone not dissimilar to Harman that, ‘No preference is given here to any one special kind of thing, since each kind is neither better nor worse than another kind. Real things do not matter to us here. Real things matter to us— and, for this reason, other kinds of things as well.’ [24] With this in mind, the rhetorical strategy of listing things, with seemingly different ontologies— all exercised by Morton, Bennett, Harman and Garcia— makes sense as an aesthetic exercise in flattening ontologies. It illustrates things are invariable in value. So lemons, sine waves, theodolites, cats and WiFi belong side by side, equally. Or to take Garcia’s list: ‘A human person is no more and no better something than a duck, a pebble, a dust particle, a chair, a word, or the sky.’[25] This is a rudimentary way of depicting a flat ontology. Assemblages similarly, align things. Take DeLanda’s human-horse-bow assemblage[26], which illustrates how parts are used to create an assemblage, while remaining assemblages themselves. A flat ontology unlike the assemblage is purposefully, maybe even radically aesthetic, because any thing can appear alongside another thing. Whereas the assemblage illustrates more familiar orders.  

          Flattening ontologies may provide a response to Bill Brown’s query: ‘how does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinstitute society?’[27] Taken from his essay ‘Thing Theory’ (2001). Exercising flat ontologies enables the dismantling of hierarchies instituted into society and politics. Garcia calls this ‘no-matter-what.’[28] Garcia outlines this as:

    Quite simply the plane of equality of what is real, possible, non-existent, past, impossible true, false, or bad. It doesn’t matter. It concerns the possibility of being either real or possible,  or real and possible, or neither real nor possible, either constructed or given, either natural or  artificial, or natural and artificial, either true or illusory, of not being all of these at once, but  of equally being able to come under (or not) one of these determinations, any determination.[29]

          A reinstitution of society according to these principles of inclusion, including everything from the processual to the nonhuman and human, fundamentally modifies hierarchies. Ontologically, hierarchies restructure the importance of one thing over another. This is detrimental to a healthy ecology. Therefore, Bennett and Garcia agree that ‘reification’ or ‘anthropomorphization’ if they lead to radically dissembling hierarchies between humans and nonhumans, aren’t necessarily ‘the reduction of our world to a world of things…not an evil, the dehumanization, desensitization, or disenchantment of the world, but the precondition of a human understanding of the difference between things.’[30]

Rather than ‘desensitization’ we may take Bennett’s cue that ‘it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp.’[31] Bennett’s term risks seeming anthropocentric, however, I interpret her usage as a means of turning the anthropic in on itself.

What emerges from a familiarity with OOO and speculative realism is a radical reorientation of the degrees of agency that objects have in an assemblage. Note that assemblages are everything, everywhere and do not conform to a particular measurement or set of limits. What this means for us is, a familiar world filled with familiar things, suddenly becomes populated with beings, things that have affectivity. Things can affect each other and us. Nothing is inert in reality. A simple object has a bundle of reactive properties with us and likewise with other objects, differing sometimes in degree and sometimes in kind. This does not mean that objects can articulate dissatisfaction and rebel against us, though sometimes they may fail to work inexplicably or do odd things we don’t expect. What it finally means for objects is that they are included into the world as the world: there is nothing in the world if not things. Just as we come into the world, so do objects. The influences they have are—regardless of the common objection that ‘we put them there and can remove them’—pronounced and do explain how asymmetries occur: we always want control. If someone has access to a thing which makes them powerful, it is owing to the existence of that thing itself, and the manipulative impulses it effects in the owner, which is a major contributing factor to an asymmetry of power acting on the person. Nothing is to blame, we must still hold those in power to account, however, the thing’s affectivity tells a rich history of how the powerful individual came to access the thing’s potential. Or consider a map, a person and territory. Without the territory there is no reason for the map to exist, nor a place for the person to exist. The attempt to co-ordinate a person through a terrain demands a map. Therefore the existence of a map is indicative of not only important terrain, but also a person navigating that terrain. This is the inception of a place of importance and what follows is civilization: more things. Therefore the relationship of man to terrain creates the encounter between map and territory. This is called the material turn and it encourages us to pay attention to the way we encounter and interact with things and what follows from those encounters. Now, as a little exercise, pick up a thing and tell it what it does for you.

Bibliography

Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009)

Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2019)

Graham Harman, Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (UK & USA: Pelican Books, 2018)

Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (United States of America: Open Court, 2002)

Igor Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. by Arjun Appadurai (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Isabelle Stengers, ‘Including the Nonhumans in Political Theory: Opening Pandora’s Box?’, in Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, ed. by Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010)

Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 3rd edn. (UK & USA: Bloomsbury, 2005)

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (UK & USA: Zero Books, 2009)

Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (UK & US: Pelican Books, 2018)

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects :Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/431001.

Tristan Garcia. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. by Mark Allan Ohm & Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014)


[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 22

[2] Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (United States of America: Open Court, 2002), p. 15

[3] Graham Harman, Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (UK & USA: Pelican Books, 2018), p. 7

[4] Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/431001. p. 165

[5] Tristan Garcia. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. by Mark Allan Ohm & Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 11

[6] See, Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, pp. 66-73, for a full discussion of metaphor. Harman dedicates all of chapter 2 to aesthetics.

[7] Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, p.160

[8] Ibid., p. 40

[9] Ibid., p. 49

[10] Ibid., p. 41

[11] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 7

[12] Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 6

[13] DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, p. 7

[14] Ibid., p. 139

[15] Ibid., 140

[16] Ibid., 140

[17] Ibid., p. 140

[18] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matte, pp. 23-24

[19] Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, p. 41

[20] Ibid., p. 43

[21] Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (UK & US: Pelican Books, 2018), p. 92

[22] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 3rd edn. (UK & USA: Bloomsbury, 2005), p. 51

[23] Garcia. Form and Object,  p. 1

[24] Ibid., p. 4.

[25] Ibid., p. 29

[26] DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, pp. 68-83

[27] Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009), p. 143

[28] Garcia, Form and Object, p. 30

[29] Garcia, Form and Object, p. 30

[30] Ibid., p. 29

[31] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 122

[32] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (UK & USA: Zero Books, 2009), p. 54