Jupiterian Realism: Imperatives and Withdrawal
by Adam Robbert
Michael of Archive Fire has a fresh post up regarding the perilous task that lies ahead for the object-oriented enthusiast when it comes to justifying the concept of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. Michael’s post is characteristically generous and well-written and has me compelled to offer a continuation of his treatment on the topic (which itself seems to have been generated by this post from Levi Bryant).
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). I’ll explore the topic in general terms first–covering some familiar OOO debates as I go–and then move on to suggest that absolute withdrawal remains a valid thesis when thought in conjunction with what Alphonso Lingis calls “the imperative,” a central feature of Harman’s philosophy. Thinking imperatives and withdrawal together may clear up some of the issues Michael raises in his post or, at the very least, may move the discussion into deeper, unexplored thickets.
Lets traverse some basic territory first. With each new iteration, Bryant continues to develop his own “onticology” making it increasingly clear that his conception of objects–as processes or systems possessing operational closure–brings hims closer and closer to the work of Alfred North Whitehead. 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absence of the real object, but a real object always-already deployed amidst a “regime of attraction;” objects are withdrawn in the sense that they are irreducible to relations and contexts, but not fully departed from all relations and contexts. (Side note: it is Bryant’s account of “regimes” where I feel closest to him philosophically, I have come to realize–rather slowly–that his use of this term is entirely compatible with how I use the word “ecology” in an expanded sense, but I digress).
Here we could draw a further connection between Bryant and Whitehead. For Whitehead, an actual occasion is deployed within a set of both prehensions and negative prehensions. In short, this means that an actual occasion is never fully exposed in any given scenario but only partially so depending on circumstance. This account is also very similar to the Harmanian distinction between real and sensual qualities, though differs in that for Bryant the real object is partially deployed, whereas for Harman the real object is completely withdrawn. It bears mentioning that I have a rather strange relation to the conception of objects-as-processes-partially-deployed. I am, on the one hand, thoroughly in debt to the work of Whitehead and count him as perhaps my strongest philosophical influence. On the other hand, I affirm the distinction between “real” and “sensual” objects advocated by Graham Harman and the “rift between essence and appearance” advocated Tim Morton. To be sure then, out of the three object-oriented philosophers that I mention above, it would seem most coherent for me to, following my cognitive debt to Whitehead, follow Bryant’s account of withdrawal, rather than Morton’s or Harman’s. And yet I’m not fully prepared to abandon absolute withdrawal just yet.
Lets take a look now at the crux of the issue. In his post Michael writes:
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…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 characterizing such complexities as merely “objects” or “relations – and talk more specifically about particular complexes distributed realities and the ecosystems they enact.
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?
The answer, for me, lies in the imperative. Objects are integral units dipolar in nature; mental and physical; affective and material; sensual and real; withdrawn and impelling. Much time has been spent discussing the withdrawal of objects from one another–an already bizzarre state of affairs. But what might be even stranger is the compelling, magnetic osmosis that seems to be occurring between the withdrawn cores of objects even as they only encounter one another indirectly. This, then, would be a response to Levi when he writes (on the problem of absolute withdrawal):
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.
I would say that an absolute withdrawal and emptiness are not the same thing. Rather than an empty ontology I would suggest an interrogative ontology. It is the magnetic, impelling character of the real object’s withdrawal that, without directly coming into contact with another object, makes it have a real impact in the world–despite being withdrawn. But, one might correctly ask, if the withdrawn object is having effects its not totally withdrawn is it? I say yes it is precisely because an object has the power to impel other objects towards itself without those objects needing to have any direct knowledge or experience of the first object itself. It strange to think but knowledge and experience do not appear to be prerequisite in this account of causality.
In this sense I think vicarious causation provides a robust account of the real-sensual tension. Withdrawn, real objects are not passively existing dark voids of nothingness. Rather, real objects are endlessly attractive, compelling, and magnetic. I would describe this scenario by appealing to one’s own embodied experience. You are already reading, already listening, already thinking, already breathing. What does this mean? It means that the entity that is you, like all other entities in the cosmos, is compelled by the trillion things in your field of experience. This doesn’t mean that you are distracted or diffuse in attention necessarily (though I suspect that sometimes you are…) What it does mean, and this is a point that Harman’s Husserlian background brings to the fore so strongly, is that you are compelled forward by your intentional consciousness and its love affair with an always erupting cosmos. The gravity of those trillion things pulls your sensual experience into a pixelated encounter with the blooming entities that surround you, without ever revealing the whirring chrysalis at the heart of each entity (We might note that Tim Morton’s sympathy for this view could come from his Buddhist background, but this is conjecture on my part).
This alliance between withdrawal and the impellative nature of things makes the rift between essence and appearance seem tenable to me. Its almost as though each object is a dipolarized magnet; pulling you in and pushing you away simultaneously. Donna Haraway calls this ontological state of affairs “interpellation.” The inertia of some of these magnets can be quite compelling, almost as though even the smallest object has a Jupiterean mass forever hidden from experience, pulling other objects in and out of its orbit without ever revealing itself (just think of the affect of a split hydrogen atom and its role in history). These hidden Jupiters lurk within the depths of everything and have nothing to do with relational properties (qualitative or quantitative).
Michael’s post is well worth considering and I take both his and Levi Bryant’s work as theses both well articulated and demanding of attention. And I share Michael’s sentiment that, while in conversation with Bryant, Morton, and Harman, I count myself as a student and not a peer. Nevertheless, I remain sympathetic to absolute withdrawal.