I support Adam’s distinction between ‘absolute’ and ‘contingent’ withdrawal. And I am willing to admit favour for a version of withdrawal consistent with a materialist understanding of contingency. I believe entities are withdrawn, but not in the sense Graham Harman and Tim Morton seem to advocate. I believe all actually existing entities are assemblages and events with material and organizational depth often exceeding the grasp and understanding of other entities - but which are nonetheless substantially accessible.“I would like to suggest that we can frame this discussion within two conceptions of withdrawal: absolute and contingent (the first associated with the work of Tim Morton and Graham Harman, the second with Michael and Levi Bryant).” [source]
I want to highlight two assumptions embedded in these statements:
First, I want to make an important distinction between “grasp” and “understanding” which seems to go to the heart of Harman’s extension of Heidegger’s tool-story.
Understanding (as 'translation') is not equivalent to structural relation (“grasp”). Understanding is a 'second-order' emergent capacity of recursive biological memory, gesture and symbolic projection coded (abstracted) and afforded by interpersonal (cultural) networks. And the cognitive operations of 'understanding', classification and representation cannot possibly determine or “exhaust” the complexities of things encountered. Embodied symbolic apprehension is inherently non-equivalent and token. Therefore I agree with Harman that the incompleteness of understanding and symbolic representation renders our translative capacities partial and limited, and threfore entities 'withdraw' from each other epistemically.
Yet, without some type of 'access' to the encountered objects of our embodied experience - and therefore access generally between objects - abstraction, codification and semantic approximation (intelligibility per se) would not be possible. As I attempted to argue in my last post on this topic, cognitive apprehension is possible be-cause symbolic understanding and intentionality are not the only ways objects or assemblages relate. Entities also often relate in various non-intentional and non-symbolic (structural) ways at different scales of material extension and organization. Direct relation is both necessary and possible viz. the emanating, composite and substantial elements of any two (or more) entities that have casual influence on the structural arrangement or unique determining patterns of another. [*]
This can be folded into an appeal to the existence of obliteration and absorption events:
Steven Shaviro’s mosquito bite example (mentioned in my last post on withdrawal) is an example which demonstrates how human flesh obliterates the functional operation and substantiality of a mosquito's composite affective capacity. As Shaviro explains:
When the mosquito bites me, it only interacts with a few of my qualities (my skin, my blood, my body heat). And even when I murder the mosquito, I only encounter a few of its qualities... [I]n Bryant’s terms, it is precisely because the mosquito interacts with certain of my powers or capacities or local manifestations, and I interact with certain of its powers or capacities or local manifestations, that we must say that the mosquito and I do encounter one another and interact — this is precisely the way that two entities perceive one another and interact.
In other words: I do not see the point in maintaining, simply because interactions (or relations) are always partial and limited, to therefore hypostasize whatever was not grasped (prehended) in the event of a particular encounter as a shadow object that exists in and of itself apart from the encounter. The mosquito only apprehends particular aspects of me; but it is “me” as a complete object, rather than just those particular aspects or manifestations of me, that is changed by the encounter. To say that objects do not encounter one another, because they cannot entirely know one another, is to reduce ontology to epistemology, once again. [source]
|human digestive process|
The take-away point here is that structural encounters are direct by virtue of their causal efficacy - the differential ability to affect the structure and composite powers or capacities of others - whereas the translations, apprehensions and phantasmic representations generated by epistemic encounters are necessarily “selective”, obscure and partial. That is to say, causality and relation are always direct but partial. The so-called “rift between essence and appearance” applies generally to symbolic operations but not necessarily to material relations and structural causality as such, because cognition, gesture, intentionality and conceptuality are different kinds of powers or capacities than physical contact and embodied relation. And by conflating the limitations of cognition and representation (epistemology) with embodied experience and causality in general (ontology) the notion of "absolute withdrawal" fails to convince.
To return briefly to the examples above, if a mosquito lands on my arm and penetrates the structural integrity of my skin with his snout we can say the mosquito and I are in direct contact or relation. But we must also say that such contact is only partially because both of us are accessing only a limited portion of the other’s total 'depth' of being. The mosquito may be ingesting my blood but it is not penetrating the structural integrity of my spleen and other aspects of my being. And the mosquito may be resting on my arm with a portion of its extensive composition beneath my skin but I have no access to its internal organs or substantive depths. Our encounter is limited by the inherent organizational and material complexity of both mosquitos and I, and therefore by the availability or lack thereof of our components. And this is what I mean by 'withdrawal' or contingent depth.
The second assumption that needs to be upacked is my appeal to depth. The focus on depth in my orginal statement above is meant to call attention to an entity's uniquely "withdrawn" complex compositional assembly. Every 'object' or assemblage has a contingent and expressive potency particular to its material-energetic composition and capacities. The term 'potency' is offered here as a technical term in my discourse referring to the affective, embodied and expressive properties of individual assemblages. Thus individuality as temporal singularity is to me an object or assemblage's unique potency, in the sense that a giraffe has a particular potency, likewise with uranium and a collection of H2O molecules. "What can a body do?" Depends on its composite onto-specific potency. And it is in the direct but partial mingling of material-energetic assemblages where potencies of all sorts often relate, combine, collaborate, conflict, constrict, or otherwise affect, augment, amplify and generate the myriad of evolved ecologies and terrains.
So I agree with Levi Bryant in that entities can only ever have “selective” access to each other based on each object’s particular (onto-specific) organizational and material-energetic depth, or endo-complexity. There will always be a certain degree of withdrawn substantiality in relations of contingent material objects/entities corresponding to the endo-complexity (depth) of any particular assemblage - just as there will always be some 'distance' between signifiers and objects of signification. While at the same time, I reject the notion that entities are absolutely withdrawn from each other.
As I argue above, entities can and do interact (penetrate, exchange, affect, obliterate, absorb, etc.) directly according to their unique structural compositions and expressive (sensual) substantiating properties - the same qualities that constitute the very fabric and flesh of their actual existence. And it is the primordial accessibility and vulnerability (ontological intimacy) of elemental life which affords each and every affective and consequential event, encounter and relation. Which is to say, it must be the case that entities are capable of affecting each other directly and substantially, if only partially, lest the notion of causality become unintelligible and knowledge itself be rendered impossible.
As Adam writes,
The answer is, of course, that if objects ‘absolutely withdraw’ both causality and responsibility break down, leaving us with a cosmos full of alienation, Platonic caves and ineffectual vicars. But we don't inhabit that cosmos do we? Withdrawal is necessarily contingent, finite and never absolute.“Michael’s concern here, as I read it, is that it makes no sense to experience and grapple with a relational, contingent world of affect whilst at the same time suggesting that this panoply of activity is the result of objects that do not touch–clearly all kinds of beings are crashing into one another everywhere! What a mess! So, if real entities everywhere are touching each other nowhere, than how is that anything is happening at all? And further, if it is the case that entities are withdrawn absolutely from one another then what possible sense of responsibility can we have towards such entities (a necessary question indeed)? Can we even be responsible to such entities?” [source]
This is how I read Levi as well. In fact, the more I try to grapple with Levi’s framework the more I find his conclusions consistent with my own. And, like Adam, I find my own ‘ecological’ sensibilities compatible with the process-relational thinking inherent in Levi’s notion of “regimes of attraction”.“In my understanding, Bryant is arguing not for an absolute withdrawal, but a contingent withdrawal wherein a real object is deployed in and through its relations, though never fully so in any specific set of relations. What does this amount to? It seems to me, if I am reading Bryant correctly, that this form of contingent withdrawal suggests not the absolute absence of the real object, but a real object always-already deployed amidst a “regime of attraction;” objects are withdrawn in the sense that they are irreducible to relations and contexts, but not fully departed from all relations and contexts.” [source]
However, I would like to push such conceptions of inter-being even further to try and conceptualize the creative nature of mutuality, co-manifestation, affordance and non-linear causality in an intimate and erotic wilderness of beings, exchanges, flows, depth and networks, rather than overemphasizing the role of the temporal agental powers of specifically withdrawn assemblages. It is the very nature of potent “deployments”, in all their temporal, spatial and material complexity and vulnerability that interests me the most about the cosmopolitics of contemporary life - as access and relation are not simply issues of theory, but of application and possible tactics. The onto-specific nature of contingency, 'deployment', and relation constitute a Wilderness of being, becomings and practice from within which all realties emerge.
In sum, I think the following point stands: ‘withdrawal’ is necessarily contingent and precarious as a result of the ubiquitous ontologically intimacy of this immanent material-energetic cosmos.