Ontological Intimacy, Depth and Deployment

portrait of a mosquito on display at the 
Smithsonian Institution in Washington
Over at Knowledge Ecology Adam Robbert has responded to my recent post on the notion of ‘withdrawal’ by reframing the discussion with an important distinction. Adam writes,
“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 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 I believe entities are withdrawn, but not in the sense Graham Harman and Tim Morton seem to advocate.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 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
For me the most striking case of direct encounter is animal digestion. Digestion is an absorption event where the material and organizational depth and unity (complexity) of an entity is directly encountered, disassembled and redistributed. Would an empirically informed critic argue that metabolic processes fail to directly penetrate the structure and capacity of the food animals ingest? I suggest not. And are those penetrating (affective) metabolic capacities integral to an animal's embodied and substantial composite powers? Indeed they are. Not only do animal bodies directly encounter, for example, an apple according to capacities essential to their continued operation, but animal bodies can also completely obliterate an apple’s compositional integrity by absorbing the apple's elements and potencies into its very own system. If such cases do not convince us of direct causal relation and ontological intimacy I’m not sure what could?

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,
“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]
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.

Adam continues,
“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]
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”.

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.


Glen said...

"If a mosquito lands on my arm and penetrates my skin we can say that the mosquito and I are in direct contact, but only partially because both of us are accessing only a limited portion of the other’s total being. The mosquito may be ingesting my blood but it is not penetrating the structural integrity of, let's say, my spleen. Likewise, the mosquito may be resting on my skin with a portion of it beneath my skin, but I have no access to its internal organs or substantive depths. Our encounter is limited by the availability or lack thereof of our components. And this is what I mean by 'withdrawal'."

Do you/it need access to its/your internal organs for them to be a constituent element of the event of a mosquito feasting on your blood? The mosquto's internal organs are actually necessary to the extent it is not a zombie/ghost mosquito that can function without internal organs, similarly the mosquito needs your blood and veins/arteries, a heart, lungs to gather oxygen for the red blood cells, etc.

There is a differential relation in the event, certainly. What is gained by taking the perspective of either/both participants as compared to what Deleuze called the fourth person singular (a kind of POV of the event itself) and incorporating all the necessary elements of 'this' event?

Anonymous said...

glen, how would one know if one had captured/outlined all of the "necessary" elements that make up an event? how to decide what's in or out?
as to why take any particular perspective I imagine this would be because in ethics/politics choices have to be made.

Glen said...

"how would one know if one had captured/outlined all of the "necessary" elements that make up an event? how to decide what's in or out?"

There is an infinity between one and two. Extensively, we say this distance equals one. Intensively, however, it is infinite. I wouldn't suggest attempting to represent the extensive set of elements involved in an event, to directly answer your question. Rather, the intensive set of elements -- relevant baroque folds of singularities -- is more useful.

how to decide is a question of ethics, I agree. This was Paul Patton's response too, in the 'Introduction' of Deleuze: A Critical Reader, in particular pages 12-15.

michael- said...

@Glen, ah yes the event! I follow Deleuze (via DeLanda) and view such issues as a matter of assembly. My own commitment to onto-specificity (or compositional particularism, if you will) entails that each 'event' must be considered in its own right, and always in context.

So, for example, consider a music concert. A music concert is an event but in no meaningful sense would I consider it an "object". Rather, it is a loose assemblage of people, equipment and other materials that maintains consistency for a short duration.

In contrast, an army is also an assemblage of people, equipment, materials, etc., but with a qualitatively different pattern and tighter alignment of agents, intentionalities and practices, to the extent that its operations and affects are substantially more efficacious.

These are two similarly composed eventual assemblages but with very different onto-specific characteristics and expressive potencies.

Remember, 'potency' is a technical term in my discourse referring to the ‘irreducible’, embodied constituent material-energetic and expressive properties of particular events or assemblages. ‘Individuality’ as temporal singularity = a unique potency. A giraffe has a particular onto-specific potency, likewise uranium, and H2O. What can a body do? Depends on its composite potency...

More to your point though, I would have to say no, ‘total’ access is not needed for entities to come together to generate an event. The relational intensities and extensive connections of events are variable, and, depending on the particular nature or potency of the assemblages in question, they can be more or less persistent (like armies, ant colonies and organisms) or fleeting (like music concerts, mosquitos attacks and bonfires).

Attention must be paid to particular potencies (assemblages, expressions and materials) and the “event mechanics” they engender. But I believe we can never truly step outside our networks and constitutional relations to get a ‘view from nowhere’ and so enters the necessity of (neo)pragmatism...

Jeremy Trombley said...

Michael, this is a question that you or Adam or even Levi can answer, perhaps, and I hope it throws a wrench in the whole debate over withdrawal. :)

The question is this: could withdrawal be a characteristic that is not intrinsic to all entities, but which reflects the different ways in which entities are composed?

What I mean is that there's so much talk about how objects are withdrawn as if it's an essential and characteristic trait of all objects. Also, it implies that all objects are equally withdrawn in every circumstance. Maybe that's not what anyone is arguing here, but that's certainly the sense that I get sometimes. But why couldn't an object be composed in such a way that it is not withdrawn at all - at least in certain circumstances? Similarly, why couldn't an object be composed in such a way that it is completely withdrawn in almost every circumstance (neutrinos, and dark matter come to mind)? It seems perfectly reasonable to me to say that different entities are differently withdrawn in different circumstances. Maybe this is what you and Adam mean by "contingent" withdrawal?

Also, I think there's still some ontological confusion about the nature of knowledge in this debate, and I think you're right to point out the conflation between, as you say, "understanding" and "grasping." The gap between "essence and appearance" exists, I believe (and have argued on my blog, briefly), because the thing-itself and the knowledge-of-the-thing are ontologically distinct entities. The one can never become the other, and so the gap will always persist. Whereas the apple and my body can become intimate through the process of digestion. I'm not sure where to go from there, but I'd be interested to see where you and Adam take that.

Glad to see the sparks flying again! The blogosphere was feeling a little empty. :)

Tiny Dancer said...

There is a good reason why Spinoza’s masterpiece of ontology is titled Ethics

Anonymous said...

Objects& Encounters

michael- said...

Jeremy, I have not answered your questions yet simply because it was so damn awesome. You say clearly in two paragraphs what took me 10 incoherent prargraphs to almost say!

I have been thinking about how to respond and I think I know what I want to add to your comments so come hell or high-water I will write up a post dedicated to you question this very eve...

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