Process, Contact and Simultaneity: Riffing Off Shaviro

In a recent post responding to Graham Harman’s Cosmos and History article on Thomas Metzinger Steven Shaviro provides a sympathetic reading of Harman’s critique of Metzinger’s more reductionist tendencies as well as certain conclusions Metzinger draws about the essence (or lack thereof) of the human self.

My knowledge of Metzinger’s work is anemic, but if what Harman and Shaviro say about Metzinger’s arguments against the existence of “self” is accurate I would tend to agree that a description of the layered, embedded and processual nature of human cognition and self-consciousness contributes more to explaining what the self actually is (e.g., a distributed network of embodied and effectual activity) than explaining it away.

What interested me most about Shaviro’s post, however, was his lucid revisiting of his long-standing arguments against the “withdrawal” of objects in favor of a more Whiteheadian processual and eventual metaphysical vision. It is a fun day for me when someone as versed and insightful as Steven Shaviro re-ignites a bit of flame under the old ‘process vs. object’ debate.

To be clear, I think the debate almost always approaches a true non-debate from the standpoint of narratives and frameworks flexible enough to accommodate both process and object-hood, or interrelatedness and irreducibility, without dogmatically adhering to either side of such fantasized dichotomies. Entities simultaneously have a unique efficacy and irreducible substantially while being eternally vulnerable and open to the flow of atoms, energy, matter and information. And to privilege either of these facts is to make an undeniably human distinction based almost entirely on temperament. Moving equilibriums, temporal assemblages, open systems, processual events or, to use a term from Ian Bogost, “unit operations” are everywhere apparent and apprehendable: not just within the empirical (and complexity) sciences but also in our immediate awareness where things impinge, extend and interpenetrate our direct experience and lived bodies.

Shaviro then goes on to provide what, in my view, amounts to a definitive rehashing of the most salient arguments against conflating ontological contact with epistemological opacity in accounting for causality generally and how objects interact specifically. Bottom-line in the case of humans: visceral, sensational experience is not identical to “knowledge”. Likewise, encounters between objects can be direct but partial when those encounters result in the meeting of affective forces despite the lack of totality in the mutually responsive and 'translative' nature of those contacts (especially in the case of objects without central nervous systems). Contact and experience need not be encompassing to be 'direct'.

Below are excerpts from Shaviro’s post which get right to the key points:
“[A]ll “things” are “really” processes. But for me, this doesn’t mean that things (or Harman’s objects) are thereby “undermined” by something else that is more essential than they are. For the fact that objects are “reifications” of processes doesn’t mean that they are illusory, or even that they aren’t basic. For the endurance of things, or their establishment of an “identity,” as a result of “reification” (which I think would better be called, in Whiteheadian parlance, social transmission and inheritance) is something that is perfectly real in and of itself. Endurance is an accomplishment, a singular and specific achievement in every case.

Moreover, this endurance is not something that happens (as Metzinger seems to claim, at least according to Harman) in our perceptual process, but actually in reality itself, in the very things which we are in process of perceiving…

We are always in direct contact with reality — since we are a part of this reality, rather than being separate from it (i.e. rather than being “withdrawn”). We are not caught in some Cartesian or Humean mental prison, familiar only with our own sense impressions (or familiar only with our own languages, in the 20th century version of this line of thought). The point, however, is that this contact cannot be reduced to, or captured as, “knowledge"… [O]ur contact with other entities is not restricted just to relations of knowledge. Harman is right to say that my concept of a tree, however full and nuanced, will never be equal to the tree itself. But this does not negate the fact that the tree has “touched” me, and I have “touched” it, non-cognitively and unconceptually

‘Phenomenal’ contact need not, and cannot, be reduced to “epistemic” contact. Contact among entities is ontological, not epistemological — and this other dimension, which Metzinger at least senses as a problem, is omitted entirely from Harman’s account, when he says that, because we do not actually know other entities, or even ourselves, therefore all entities must ‘withdrawn’ from one another — and even from themselves.” [underlines added]
I must emphasize here (in relation to Shaviro’s metaphor) that humans and other objects are never truly caught in a "prison" of translation, they are that prison. Affective entities are “prisons” (assemblages or apparatuses) situated in place, in the world, with 'doors' capable of being opened. As embodied matrices of capacity and relative depth, objects contact other objects or assemblages directly viz. all those inherent, onto-specific and characteristic sensitivities which define the limits of their constitutions. Yet, it is the relatively circumspect properties of specific sensitivities and capacity for response or adaptation which makes such contacts, exchanges, experiences or encounters partial. That is, interaction and causality are most often direct but partial.  [cf. my post Conjuring the Gap - re: what I call ontological intimacy]

There are more riches in Shaviro’s post than I can hope to plunder in this post so I suggest those curious go read the entire offering: here.


Jason Hills said...

To nitpick. Why not say "interpreted" rather than "partial?" Partial implies a whole that we never really have.

michael- said...

Hey Jason,

Because I'm trying not to draw too hard a distinction between the way humans encounter things and the way, say, tomatoes encounter radioactive materials. Objects, no matter what they are, encounter each other directly, viz. their corporeal structures or emanating 'plastic' bodies, but do so partially, because of the inherent "mediating" limitations of their receptive specificities.

If we want to restrict this view to humans I would then say that humans experience the world directly (via our complex biological capacities), but do so partially because those general experiences are mediated through perception and subsequent 'interpretation'. My stance is that mediation does not occlude immediacy, in the same way that experience in not the same as "knowledge".

michael- said...

 [ See also my post Conjuring the Gap - re: what I call ontological intimacy ]

Anonymous said...

well riffed sir, dmf

michael- said...

Thanks D, coming from you that's a genuine compliment.

michael- said...

“Thus the Other-as-object is an explosive instrument which I handle with care because I foresee around him the permanent possibility that ‘they’ are going to make it explode and that with this explosion I shall suddenly experience the flight of the world away from me and the alienation of my being.” - Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Jason Hills said...


Mostly, I'm talking from the standpoint of rhetoric. Do you want to use "human neutral" terms to express object-object relations, or do you want to "humanize" the cosmos by referring to such relations using human terms, e.g., objects interpret one-another. If the latter, we find ourselves in the panpsychist garden of language. If not, we might find ourselves in the abstract planes of mathematical language.

Be a Dewey scholar, I'm down with immediate mediacies as a formal distinction concerning temporal relations. E.g., immediate conscious experience is always immediate to us, but is also mediated by our bodies for us.

Anonymous said...

on levinas & sensibility without subjectivity

Anonymous said...

here is metzinger for folks who haven't read him:

Anonymous said...

why everyone(else) is a hypocrite:

michael- said...

@Anon - Not sure I liked Kurzban equating human sentience with smart phones (old computer metaphor) but he expands it enough into biological modularity to provide a great take on our cognition generally.

michael- said...

@Jason - I want to have a vocabulary that is able to talk about such matters in a more fundamental, non-anthrocentric manner (ontographically) while ALSO having the ability to describe and explain the world re: very specific systems, situations and scales (such as hominid communication). Both.

I certainly don't want to "humanize" the cosmos. I hold to what I call The Principle of Onto-Specficity, which basically states that every relation, object, entity or assemblage is irreducibly what it is and cannot be explained or explained away by reference to any other sub-component or extra-influencing factors. This is the part of Latour's work, Harman's work and OOO I completely agree with. Although I "locate" the substantiality/irreducibility of things in their ontic specificities: their energetic-materiality, and not in some transcendental ontological essence.

All this is only to say that I find absolutely no use in anthropomorphizing the cosmos because each situation or assemblage (or, as i prefer, matrix) has a unique energetic-material, historical and concrete composition, or existence in the world, which becomes expressed under particular conditions.

In other words, and with less pomposity, an apple is irreducibly an apple now matter what properties it shares with, say, a horse. All the active components which make up an apple generate its apple-ness, its onto-specific potency, in ways that require a detailed accounting if we are to "explain" its existence (being).

This is also why mathematics alone can't explain the universe either. The poverty of math is that it is too abstract, and cannot adequately signal emergent properties at levels of scale and assemblage above the physical. Math cannot, for instance, explain the affective resonances of the music of Mozart or Adele at the level of the inter-emotional communications of humans. Math is necessarily reductive, whereas real situations are irreducibly complex, expressing whole ecologies of distributed properties.

Above is also why "panpsychism" seems so naive to me. Psychical capacities are specific to animals and like creatures, whereas the "awareness" that a slime mold has is particular to its constitution. Plants don't have psyches, they have rudimental sensitivities.

At the same time, however, primate psyches are not different in kind from plant sensibilities, they only more complex, onto-specific extensions of what I'd rather call the pan-sensuality of cosmic materials.

Jason Hills said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael.

I meant my points as constructive, especially since I wrestle with these problems as well, and the choice of vocabulary is not insignificant. Hence, much of the discussion and miscommunication among, say Harman, Bryant, and Shaviro is not incidental to the terms used. I still balk at calling OOO "substance metaphysics" in onticology.

Have you written a glossary? I'd be curious to see it f you have. I'm on my fourth, which is necessary for us Dewey scholars as he was never consistent. Whitehead was much, much better at that.

Jason Hills said...

Getting back on topic,

By "humans and other objects are never truly caught in a prison of translation, they are that prison," would not the following view capture the thought? The human phenomenal world is a semiotic "prison." The world of phenomena is the world of the Peircean interpretant. However, calling this a "prison" is a misnomer, because any Peircean third, the interpretant, necessarily includes the sign and the object of the sign. What prison of phenomena allows its inhabitants to escape? That is, we experience the redness of the apple and interpret it (experience it as) "red," (third) where that experience is taken as a sign (second) for the object that may become manifest as red (first). Thus, redness is real, but redness is not an idempotent property of the object that everywhere manifests as "red," but only does so in certain human situations (ecologies if you wish). If there are any bars to the prison, it is the body itself, that interacts with the object to manifest "red." The operative limitation on the possibilities of experience is the limit to which the body can enact or engage with its environment.

And as you point out, experience or bare contact is not knowledge. In fact, experience is not even representation in this account, and if one thinks of knowledge as representation, then a Peircean view will look like a prison.

I believe that you were familiar with Peirce? I'm a bit time-constrained to write something without the jargon….

michael- said...


I think vocabulary is very important. Rorty drove that point home for me. My approach is, however, more experimental than scholarly. I have no patience for convention for the sake maintaining traditional schemas and resonances. And I often seek to purposely ‘mutate’ concepts or discourses in an effort to enact alternative thought procedures and/or discussions. And, so, it might go without saying, I’m not an institutional philosopher – but a lover of wisdom nonetheless.

In regards to a lexicon: yeah I’m working on one, mostly for my own sake because I want to stabilize my rhetoric/framework enough to more effectively and consistently deploy in my work. It would probably help those whom I communicate with as well, but I feel uncomfortable assuming anyone would concern themselves with it.

‘So then what’s my game’ you might ask? I earn a living as a public health consultant mainly dealing with public education and healthcare (and para-healthcare) systems. In practice this entails ethnographic investigations of local activities, multi-dimensional mapping of institutional terrains and practices, tracking material, informational and ecological flows, and then designing, revising and helping implement policy changes and practical applications.

So where does ontology and theory more generally fit in? Everywhere. My position is that in order to design ecologically sensitive and mutually beneficial public education and healthcare systems we need to think clearly about the deepest nature of ‘situations’, systems, objects, processes, and assemblages - as well as the political and ethical implications of our interventions and their effects. A pre-theoretical approach to social engineering and human praxis in wholly inadequate in an age where everything we do and all the materials we engage with have deep consequences for our species, other species and the planet generally. As a person directly involved in enacting influential social realities I seek to re-think our basic assumptions about the world, people and communities as a means to cultivate better sensitivities and practices. Hence my interest in what has recently been called ‘ontography’, or, in my case, applied ontography.

To your question about Peirce, I must confess I know very little about his work. With a little research I’m sure I could understand your point here about semiotics, but I would refuse, in any case, to posit any kind of extreme gap between perceiver and perceived because both are actual objects in the same material world.

“Redness”, to take your example, is an event or situation that emergences (manifests) through the intensive interactions between apples, humans, the sun and the earth and their extensive properties. So I don’t think of the body as a prison or as a limitation because our embodied capacities for experience are what even affords us the opportunity to participate in meaning-full (consequential) events in the first place.

It is only the desire for omniscience that negatively views the “limits” of human experience as insufficient for approaching the “thing itself”. There is no from outside reality where we can gain knowledge of the Absolute. Experience and action are raw, contingent and immanent.

You write: “…experience or bare contact is not knowledge. In fact, experience is not even representation in this account, and if one thinks of knowledge as representation, then a Peircean view will look like a prison.”

Exactly: if we think mistake cognitive apprehension for basic causality partial limitations look like total withdrawals, and “gaps” will be conjured. No person is an island, and there are no prisons that cannot be broken.

michael- said...

"[I]mmanence, I believe, is the thesis that the world is enough. At the ontological level, Enlightenment or immanence means that there is no “extra-being”, no “supplementary being” in the form of a transcendent God, forms, or essences, but rather that there is only a single flat plane of being where entities act and react to one another. Here we should think of Lucretius’s interacting atoms, Spinoza’s monism, or Darwin’s ecology. Within these frameworks there is no ontological legislator that stands above being." - Levi Bryant,

Jason Hills said...

Peirce is the answer to Shaviro's " Intentionality — including Molnar’s “physical intentionality” — has an important role to play here; even if this is not Brentano’s version of intentionality, nor Husserl’s. (I am trying, instead, to yoke intentionality to Whitehead’s sense of “prehension”). At this point, I no longer see very clearly — this is where I am stuck right now, and what I am trying to work my way through."

It would answer, in extreme detail, your concern about extreme gaps. In my work, the real thing calls out and summons intentionality--intentionality originates from the transaction of thing and body as an irreducible, unique, and creative dyad (Peircean dyad). Thus, intentionality is neither "from the head out" or "from the thing in," but comes from a disequilibrium in the transactions, where what counts as a disequilibrium depends on the human body, etc.

As for the redness example, what you're doing is invoking Dewey and Dewey's Peirce, upon whom Whitehead relied. You are right, but I'm telling you where that is coming from. However, the body is a limitation because of all the ontological possibilities for interaction, a concrete body is potentially capable of only a subset. (Note the shift from ontological possibility to potentiality.) I call this limitation a "prison" as a rhetorical device that is apt in moral discussions when our habitual bodies blind us to moral sensitivities, but that's getting a little off-topic. You note that I take back the "prison" metaphor.

I do not, however, think that reality is "flat." I think that existence is "flat," but that reality also includes possibility, activity/existence, and persistence or law. I affirm Peirce's scholastic realism that allows one to saw that qualitative experience is real, and that neurosci can bugger off with its epiphenomenality.

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