Riffing On Withdrawal: Difference, Embodiment and Access

In a duo of recent posts at Larval Subjects Levi Bryant takes up the notion of object “withdrawal” in earnest once again by addressing several of the most relevant questions percolating in the thoughts of many critics of object-oriented philosophies.

In these posts Levi not only clearly states the core problem I have with any object-oriented metaphysics but then goes on to skillfully differentiate his own understanding of “withdrawal” from Graham Harman’s by further articulating philosophical commitments consistent with a move towards integrating process-relational thinking with object-orientated investigations.

To begin with Levi states,
“It seems to me that one of the single greatest challenges that proponents of withdrawn objects face is this charge of proposing an empty metaphysical abstraction that makes no difference. I resolve to treat the object as withdrawn from all relations such that we have no access to it whatsoever (this is not, incidentally, my concept of withdrawal). In this way I seek to preserve the object form all erasure under relation. Yet in doing this, what has happened? Have I not won a Pyrrhic victory? Insofar as I’ve claimed that the object is withdrawn from all relation and access, I’m also led to the claim that nothing can be said of the object qua object because the object is withdrawn. As a consequence, the object becomes, at the level of concepts, an empty point. As thoroughly withdrawn, I am unable to say anything of the object. Any quality that I might attribute to its reality is necessarily a quality for me (in relation), and not a quality of the object itself. And this is true both metaphysically (in the non-pejorative sense) and epistemologically. It’s not just that the object is empty for me, the person seeking to know the object. No, it is also that the object is empty for any other object, because the real being of the object is withdrawn from each and every object, existing in a self-contained vacuum, unable to touch any other object.” [source]
This is precisely the crux. If objects, entities, assemblages, etc., are incapable of ‘touching’ or interacting or relating to each other is some sort of direct way there is absolutely no possibility of encountering the things-in-themselves, much less knowing anything substantial about them. As Levi puts it later in the post, “there’s just no way anyone can know anything about it and thus it makes no difference in our thought.” There has to be some sense in which entities make contact or they would never be able to communicate (in the broadest sense of that term). And I would even venture to add that any such world populated by inaccessible, vacuous, isolated objects could only be an alienated, underimplicated prison-house of pure/ideal and forever undetectable substances.

However, fortunately we do not live in such a world. We don’t have to search far to find the myriad of ways humans touch, penetrate, swap materials, propagate, interfere, incapacitate, augment and otherwise intervene upon each other’s substantiality (external and internal), as well as the integrity and constitutional operations of so many other organic and non-organic entities and assemblages. We live in a world with sex, germs and atomic fluctuations. We live in a world of chemical catalytics, metabolic processes, cellular mitosis, symbiotic relations, nuclear fission and co-evolutionary dynamics. Each assemblage of expressive materials enacts a dynamic, or what Levi calls a “regime of attraction”, unique to the wider ecology of flows, exchanges and influences in which particular assemblages are implicated. Our world is extensive, immanent, collaborative, distributed, intensive and enacted all the way down. These facts are as irreducible as any formal metaphysical caricature we might seek to project upon the world.

But the question remains: how best are we to describe and attempt to explain this mix and mingle (and mangle) of things, flows and relations? Is there one great set of signifiers that can explicate and then codify the nature of such a wilderness of being? I can’t imagine there would be since, as Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) remind us, all assemblages and contexts are unique and irreducible to either the processes or elements of which they are composed. Every actual entity is, I argue, a fully embodied material-energetic assemblage with an irreducible onto-specific expressivity, or “individuality” as such.

OOO is right to champion this “withdrawn” onto-specific potency as the flash-point where intensive differences are generated. It is with specific thresholds of actual assembly and organizational unity where causal affectivity takes on its particular character and function. That is to say, the distribution of “objects” and assemblages are difference per se; they are the ‘what’ that makes a difference, and they are the rhythmic punctuations that comprise the song of this cosmos.

However, where I think OOO goes too far (at least with Harman and Tim Morton) is where they assign absolute identities to such potent beings to an extent where there is an imposition of metaphysical boundaries that do not actually exist. Now, to be fair, the understanding of the term “object” varies greatly among the OOO enthusiasts – which, in effect, serves to stretch the term beyond any ordinary linguistic coherence. But what unites these thinkers is a willingness to advocate for the “complete” or “total” withdrawal of all objects/assemblages from each other and even from themselves. This radical boundary-making, I suggest, can only obscure the already complicated project of investigating BOTH the assembled efficacy and individuality of entities (their onto-specific potency, or 'being') and their fully implicated, material-energetic, processual, embedded and temporal relations (their 'becomings') simultaneously. I argue, counter-intuitively perhaps, that it is the onto-specific substantially of entities and assemblages that should caution us to avoid universally characterizing such complexities as “objects” or “relations – and talk more specifically about particular admixtures, alliances, complexes, distributed realities and the ecosystems they enact.

This call for attention to the particular composition of specific entities is echoed in Glen Fuller's recent comments here:
"[T]he composition of matter and energy are entirely compositional and contingent. As energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, then this or that composition of matter and energy is continually being transformed (ie entropy) since the beginning of the universe. The given composition of anything would therefore be a particular contingent composition of matter and energy." (emphasis added) [source]
As well as Jussi Parikka's questionings here:
"I guess OOP wants to treat everything as an object - across scales, genres and epistemological prejudices - and hence bring a certain flatness to the world - to treat humans and non-humans on equal footing, a project which I am in complete agreement with - but does this not risk paradoxically stripping entities, the world of specificity?" (emphasis added) [source]
So as I see it we have two serious sets of problems with OOO at this point: one cluster epistemological and the other ontological. First, as we said above, if all real entities are “totally withdrawn” and inaccessible (and to be encountered as “sensual objects” and only alluded to via metaphor) then, as Levi suggests, we cannot claim to have any real understanding of them. In comparison, however, the related ontological problem of “total withdrawal” is even worse: if we have no substantial, reliable or direct access to real objects then we can have no real affect on them – and thus causality itself breaks down in such an account. Even in Harman’s ingenious “vicar” system of causality the contradiction quickly becomes obvious in that even if we need vicars we must, in some sense, have direct access/contact to/with them. That is, for ontological realism to be intelligibly argued it must be argued that ontological intimacy must be the case. Both contact and access must be possible.

Consider, for example, the following argument from Steven Shaviro:
"[W]e do encounter objects all the time, the entire universe is composed of objects encountering other objects. The fact that these encounters do not involve the manifestation of all the powers or capacities of the objects in question does not mean that the objects are somehow failing to encounter one another, or that there needs to be a split between an object and its manifestations, as Bryant and Graham Harman both maintain. When a mosquito bites me, I am changed thereby, although this is only to a relatively minor (albeit irritating) degree. When I slap and kill the mosquito, it is changed so extensively as to be altogether obliterated. 
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]
These twin objections to OOO obviously need to be developed further in order to approach academic persuasiveness. However let me go just a little further on the issue of “withdrawal” by suggesting that part of the reason OOO – at least as originally proposed by Graham Harman – continues to assign absolute identities to assemblages in general, despite the obvious objection from anyone with materialist sensibilities that all real “objects” mix, mingle and exchange determining influences, is because of a conflation of cognitive apprehension (epistemology) with structural relation (ontology). Harman graphs Husserl onto Leibniz by way of Heidegger.

In other words, my hunch is that part of the reason Harman and others overextend Heidegger’s hammer-story is that Harman (or is it Husserl?) fails to properly differentiate conceptuality (knowing) from embodied perception (experiencing). Harman seems to assume knowledge equals experience and thereby feels justified in extinguishing all traces of corporeal pre-phenomenological physicality – and its structural-relational quality - from the actual encounters of human objects/assemblages. This conflation of human multiplicity and the elimination of non-cognitive structural relation is then radicalized and projected back unto the physical universe at large. Harman seems to believe that if we or any other objects are incapable of knowing something in its "entirety" we are thus, by logical extension (or conflation), unable to directly encounter it. This completes Harman’s alchemical move of morphing inadequacy (of conceptuality) into inaccessibility, resulting in what I find to be an ultimately alienating discourse that erodes our reckonings of both causality and intelligibility. And this, I think, is a fatal mistake for any kind of realism.

My claims here, of course, remain to be supported with reference to specific passages found within Graham’s work. And I must stress that my intention here is NOT to tear down the house that Harman built. I have learned a tremendous amount from Harman, Morton and especially Levi Bryant. If fact, I consider myself a student of these gentlemen not their peers. But my statements above, as far as they are at all intelligible, reflect my attempt to work through what I think are the main logical inconsistencies and unfortunate rhetorical effects inherent to object-oriented theory.


Jason Hills said...

Good post.

I share your concerns, and I articulated them very differently in the series of discussions and my posts on nominalism vs. realism. The issue that Levi addresses is an obvious problem.

michael- said...

I think Levi is doing a fantastic job of fleshing out his version of OOO. At some point I see him diverging even more from Harman's views. The tensions just haven't been explored to date.

michael- said...

The issue I think is gonna come down to materialism. Harman (and Morton a little less so) is a metaphysician in the classic sense, whereas Bryant is a materialist. Thus tensions must arise between privileging immanent properties (and actual occasions) over transcendental structures (ontological universality).

Adam said...

Great series of reflections here, Michael. I shall try and respond tonight or tomorrow. Lots of things worth exploring further.

michael- said...

Adam, that would be great - i find your thought always stimulates my own development, if only because i think we are very close on so many issues.

Jason Hills said...

I see no reason to think that there is a tension between "immanent properties" and "transcendental ontological structures" unless you think that the transcendental is also transcendent and not immanent. There is no necessity to that. The transcendental understood merely as "conditions for the possibility of" need not be thought along with Kantian transcendental dialectic.

I'm not sure what "materialist" means in this context; it has too many denotations.

There is a clear difference between Harman and Levi, but the distinction is not what you say, although I think in thsi case it was just word choice.

I cannot help but note that gave makes this announcement after much discussion and pushing from the process side of things.

michael- said...

Those are excellent points Jason. I guess I have an idiosyncratic sense of the "transcendental" and the "transcendent".

If we take the transcendental as the "conditions for the possibility of" then I agree that this is compatible with immanence, but I would certainly shy away from any argument that would suggest the cosmos must be a certain way regardless of material instantiations.

For example, if the OOO peeps argue that every difference that makes a difference is necessarily an "object", or an irreducible and totally withdrawn unit unto its own, regardless of what I call the onto-specificity (or ontic particularity, if you will) of actual material-energetic assemblages, then I don't think this is compatible with understanding reality as an immanent field.

Reifying general tendencies or "conditions" is a secondary operation of thought, abstracted from the ongoing instantiations of actual events/assemblages.

Metaphysics is game of chasing shadows unless we explicitly foreground our speculative stance in relation to material-energetic realities (aka, the wilderness of being).

michael- said...

FYI: Adam Robbert has a great response to this post: here

Jason Hills said...


No, you do not have an idiosyncratic use of the terms. You have a very common one, and it leads to much misunderstanding and limiting of intellectual options. Note that Kant makes much of the distinction I give, although how he uses “transcendental” in the dialectic is peculiar to him.

I would also “shy away” from arguments that insist that the cosmos must be a particular way, except for the various axioms used to get a metaphysics of the ground. One should keep in mind that axioms are not chosen on the basis of proof, but through abductive criteria (or their equivalent). Hence, I wrote an a blog post awhile back arguing for “naturalism” implying “causal closure.”

I agree with your concerns about what is an object. What I’ve seen of an answer to the concerns is “withdrawal,” but withdrawal is as yet a problematic answer. I think they’ll eventually work it out and that the OOO peeps will duel about who gets to claim the winning solution. I’ll sell popcorn.

Jason Hills said...

Btw, let me say something about “immanent transcendence,” since it is the name of my blog. I have in mind an immanent transcendental movement. What comes to be comes from immanence (nature), yet becoming is a continuous process of transcending the prior event. Transcendence is creativity; what is now is something more or different than what is past, but that past is carried into the present in a new form. Thought in terms of linear temporality, each present transcends the last. But since each present carries its past towards its future, the past and future are transcendental conditions for the present. (I’ll talk about future elsewhere.)

I use these terms rather than others, because I am interested in phenomenology, which is a movement of revealing and concealing in some senses, but also of emanation in others. Hence, you could read a moment of Hegel, of Heidegger, and even Plotinus if you wish in my words, but I am ultimately aimed at naturalistic metaphysics understood as an abductive enterprise in the American tradition that backgrounds a realist phenomenology. I say this because I’m sure I could find other vocabularies to articulate these concepts, but they lack the phenomenological and hermeneutic connotations needed.

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