Larval Subjects to an Interview: Levi Bryant

[again, those kind enough to cross-post previous interviews, please do so again.]


Levi R. Bryant is perhaps the most prolific online writers on speculative realism at his blog, Larval Subjects. He is the author of Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence, co-editor of the forthcoming The Speculative Turn with Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, and author of a number of articles on Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, Lacan, and political theory. An associate professor of philosophy at Collin College, Bryant was a practicing Lacanian analyst, and thus understands well the areas of contemporary Continental philosophy that he critiques as too irrealist. Perhaps most interesting to the students of this course and readers online is how Bryant formulates his work online, tirelessly posting blog items often thousands of words in length and then responding kindly to his interlocutors, who are, as often as not, philosophical novices who want to understand better the nature of his work. Those interested in speculative realism are awaiting his forthcoming Democracy of Objects due out from Re:Press.

1. Levi, thanks for helping me in this pedagogical experiment. One of the virtues of speculative realism as a “movement” is how approachable its main thinkers are. There are pitfalls to this: when writing a late night post, one says things more quickly than one would in a journal article. But you also can write about things not necessarily in one’s area but is of philosophical concern to you. Thus I’d like to begin, as I did with Graham Harman, with a self-referential question about what you make of this new environment: do you find it a new way of doing philosophy? Or is it simply a return to the kind of dialogues and letter forms of writing philosophers did in previous eras?

I’m glad you asked this question because in many respects it gets right to the heart of the significance of object-oriented ontology for disciplines outside of philosophy.  It is sometimes mistakenly suggested that OOO seeks to eradicate the human, when in fact OOO is interested in broadening the domain of philosophical inquiry to make room for nonhuman actors or objects in addition to humans.  Since Descartes, philosophy has tended to obsess on a single relation or gap between humans and objects, focusing almost exclusively on how subjects or humans represent objects.  In many instances, this tradition reduces objects to their representations by humans, treating objects as mere passive vehicles that carry these representations without contributing any differences of their own.  OOO wants to escape this sort of representationalism and this exclusive focus on the relation between the human and the world in representation.  And part of the reason OOO wishes to escape what Harman has called the “bland human-world gap” is that it believes that we cannot properly understand human collectives without taking into account the role that nonhuman actors play in these collectives.  And here, above all, it’s important to avoid treating these nonhuman objects as passive vehicles for human representations.

Initially this seems unrelated to your question, but it helps to situate, I think, the question of what role the internet has played in the development of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.  Here the key point would be that there is no such thing as a neutralmedium.  Rather, whenever agents interact through a medium, whether that medium be speech, writing, smoke signals, comics, video, music, clay, text messaging, the internet, etc., the medium both affords possibilities of interaction that would not be possible in any other medium, and constrains possibilities.  In terms of McLuhan’s tetrad, we should always ask “what does the medium enhance or intensify?” and “what does it render obsolete or displace?”

representational account of the internet would tend to reduce it to its status as a tool or implement for human practices and intention.  Here the nonhuman actor—in this case the internet –becomes invisible or erased behind the human intention.  The implement itself, one would say, is largely irrelevant as the tool is thoroughly explained in terms of the structure of human intentionality.  Here we might think of Heidegger’s analysis of tools, where strangely tools in their being as objects don’t appear at all.  Rather, we get an analysis of the “for-the-sake-of-which”, the “in-order-to”, the “in-which”, etc.  The tool is merely a vehicle or carrier for these human intentions.

One thing OOO would like to understand is what differences objects contribute, over and above the human intentions thrown over them like a spider’s web.  Like any object or set of objects, the internet constrains and affords possibilities of interaction among humans in unique ways.  In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes that we should seek to understand how “…the medium… shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (9).  Additionally, we should seek to understand how the medium in-forms content.  As for the scale and pace of human associations, and with respect to philosophy in particular, the blogosphere has tended towards overturning the hegemony of the academy or the university system.  Traditionally philosophy has taken place in expensive and hard to obtain academic journals, difficult to find philosophy texts, and professional conferences that can be very expensive to attend.  And by and large the “price of admission” in any of these venues has been an advanced degree of some sort. Further, in many cases articles in journals are seldom read, but you also get group networks of like-minded philosophers that begin controlling the content of journals, what articles will be published, what articles will not be published, and whose articles will be published.

The blogosphere significantly challenges these institutions by bringing people together that come from both inside and outside the academy, and by enabling the possibility of philosophical movements that emerge outside of the gatekeepers of the journals and conferences.  It is unlikely, for example, that SR would have taken the form it has taken had the blogosphere not existed.  To be sure, certain books might still have been published, but rather than coagulating into a loose movement it’s likely they would have been aberrant texts soon forgotten.  This is because the Continental philosophy journals and conferences are currently dominated by certain forms of philosophy inimical to both the style and content of SR.  However, with the internet it became possible to form collectives and discussions outside of the academy that brought the work of very diverse thinkers together under a single banner.  This led to the formation of special issues of journals and entire journals devoted to SR, the hosting of conferences, and the founding of presses to publish this work.  A number of graduate students, in their turn, became interested in variants of this thought, pestering, I imagine, their professors and dissertation directors to let them work on these issues, thereby forcing establishment academia to pay more attention to this movement rather than dismissing it out of hand.  All of this from a nonhuman actor.

Does the content of philosophy change when written in a blog format?  A blog entry is still a form of writing so our initial hunch might be that the medium has no effect on the content.  However, one only need try the experiment of writing all sentences in 45 words or less to see what a profound effect media can have on content.  We can think of books as very slow moving conversations.  One reason people wrote books was that their interlocutors were not immediately available.  Here we might think of Leibniz’s New Essays on the Human Understanding which was written as a point by point rejoinder to John Locke.  Leibniz abandoned the book when Locke died.  The point, however, is that the book is a labor of time.  The structure of time on the internet, by contrast, is very different.  Where a book might be written over the course of years, a blog entry is written in an hour or so and presented to the public warts and all.  Where generally responses to a book are very slow to come, responses to a blog entry can be very quick and ongoing. As a consequence, internet philosophizing tends to lead to a very quick evolution of thought where positions change rapidly.  Perhaps this calls for a new sort of philosophy, where one doesn’t so much embody a fixed position as engage in a developing tendency of thought not unlike the evolution of a species over time.

2. The students in course have read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Heidegger’s work in Being and Time and “The Thing,” as well as various works from Michael Dummett for an analytic conception of language and its own referential nature. We have also been following up on Graham Harman’s work on Latour and “object oriented philosophy.” Perhaps one way to begin would be to ask why you have chosen the word “onticology” to represent your own “object oriented” work.

I think there is a ludic dimension to object-oriented ontology, and this comes through in my choice of the term “onticology” as the name for my position.  The term “onticology” or “science of objects” for my ontology is a bit of a practical joke, a thumbing of the nose, not unlike Derrida’s call for a “grammatology.”  Heidegger famously distinguished between the ontic and the ontological.  The ontic refers to ordinary objects, to physical objects, to material objects, whereas the ontological refers to the meaning of being and that which bestows the being of beings.  For Heidegger we are doomed to miss the question of being if we remain at the level of the ontic.  Rather we must ascend to the heights of being and withdraw from the ontic to grasp the question of the meaning of being in all of its mysteriousness.

The term “onticology” suggests a refusal of this move, a refusal to ascend to the heights of the being of beings, so as to remain at the level of the world and objects.  If this move is advisable, then this is because we have always already been forgetting objects.  Objects become invisible to us, reduced as they are to passive vehicles or carriers of our representations and intentions.  I suppose that, contra Heidegger, I intend the term “onticology” to suggest that it is not the forgetting of being that is the problem, but the forgetting of objects that’s the problem.  We must refuse the Protagorean imperative whereby man is the measure of all things and the Narcissus that this imperative entails, so that we might encounter the teaming world of objects.

3. What is interesting in your work is that it’s very influenced by Latour, but you don’t go in quite the same direction as he does with regard to relations as the whole story of existence. But on the other hand, you don’t quite follow Harman’s work all the way in terms of what he calls “the allure” or the “something more” of objects. Thus a simple question: what strikes you as a major difference in your account from Harman, or if I was a tabloid interviewer, I’d write, “what do you think Harman has gotten so awfully wrong?”

I am, of course, deeply sympathetic to Harman’s work and find constant inspiration in it, nor do I think he’s gotten anything awfully wrong.  I would say that my onticology differs fundamentally from Harman’s ontography on two fundamental points: First, Harman’s objects are utterly concrete and actual, without any hidden potentials.  For me, by contrast, the proper being of an object is not to be found in its actuality, but in its potentiality. I conceptualize objects as “difference engines” or “generative mechanisms,” which is to say that I think them as powers or capacities of doing or acting in the world. I thus argue that objects are split or are split-objects.  On the one hand, you have the actualized qualities or properties of an object which I call the “local manifestation” of the object, while on the other hand you have the powers or capacities of an object which I refer to as its “virtual proper being.”  The substantiality of an object is not to be found in its qualities, but rather in the ensemble of its powers or capacities.  This entails that we never directly encounter an object because no object ever actualizes the totality of its powers in all the ways in which those powers can become manifest.  Rather, there is always a hidden excess or reserve of potentiality that dwells within the object.  This is why I refer to the qualities of an object as local manifestations of the object. They are actualizations of the object at a particular point in time and under determinate conditions or relations to other objects. It follows then that qualities are acts on the part of an object. Qualities or properties are not something an object has, but are something that an objectdoes when it relates to other objects in the world.

To illustrate this idea, do a pseudo-phenomenological analysis of a colored object. Generally we think of a particular color as a quality that an object has or possesses. Onticology, by contrast, argues that color is something an object does. It would be better to speak of an object “coloring” than to speak of an object as being colored.  If you doubt this, look very carefully at an object in the sunlight.  Perhaps, for example, a blue coffee mug.  As the clouds pass by, as the leaves rustle in the wind, the color of the mug changes!  Now it is a deep shade of blue.  Now it is a brilliant blue.  Now it is a flat blue. Night approaches and the cup turns black.  The color of the cup is not something that the object has, but rather is a power of the cup.  The cup has “blue power”.  It has the power of “blue-ing”.  And this power differs from any of the local manifestations of this power. The power ranges from black to brilliant blue and all the shades in between.  The shades that are selected in this phase space are a function of the relations it enters into with photons of light.  We never directly encounter the object qua power, but only effects of this power in local manifestations.

The same point can be made with respect to water.  The hardness of water is a function of the speed or velocity at which it is approached.  I can slip my hand through the water of an ocean as I ride along in a motor boat, but if I jump from a high flying plane the water will be as hard as cement.  These are powers of the water manifested under determinate conditions.  Likewise, the water is capable of undergoing phase transitions.  Thus, under incredibly high pressure water becomes dense and solid like ice.  Similarly, water can of course freeze and become hard.  And again it can be a liquid or steam.  Again, these are all local manifestations of the power of water.  Onticology recommends that we understand objects in terms of what they can do, that we think of objects as acts or doings, rather than as beings that possess or own properties.  This, I take it, is at odds with Harman’s thesis that objects are completely actual or concrete.  However, I am never entirely sure we are in disagreement here, for Harman also argues that objects withdraw from all relation, such that they hide behind their qualities.  This sounds a lot like potentiality to me.

Second, I’ve always had difficulty understanding Harman’s problem of causality. Harman argues that objects can never relate to one another and therefore encounters a problem with causation.  I’ve always had a difficult time understanding why non-relation follows from the thesis that objects withdraw from one another.  With Harman I accept the thesis that objects withdraw from one another, but I think I articulate this in a different way.  Within the framework of onticology, withdrawal denotes the manner in which the object qua potency is in excess of any of its local manifestations.  There is always more to the object than any of its local manifestations at a particular point in time and under particular determinate conditions.  Yet this doesn’t, for me, entail that objects don’t interact.  They interact at the level of their qualities or local manifestations, evoking particular qualities in one another.

4. What I think is really interesting in your work is the way you reject the linguistic turn without giving up on all of its insights about language. You have a fully worked out conception of language that at the same time does the referencing that objects already do themselves. Is that correct?

I think that there is much of value in the linguistic and semiotic turn and that it would be a mistake to throw out the linguistic and semiotic philosophy developed in the last one hundred or so years.  The problem with the linguistic turn is that it tended to erase objects underneath language or the signifier.  Once again, objects became mere vehicles or carriers for linguistic differences, contributing no differences of their own.  This harkens back to Aristotle’s distinction between form and matter.  Matter was treated by Aristotle as a passive media that received active form.  Think about making bricks.  You have the clay, then you put it in the mould and you get the brick.  The clay simply takes on the form of the mould.  The linguistic turn has strongly tended in the direction of this form/matter schema, treating objects as passive matters awaiting the form-giving activity of language.

With respect to the linguistic turn, my strategy is to propose a delicate shift in perspective. Rather than thinking in terms of objects passively receiving form by language, I instead propose that we think in terms of entanglements of objects.  If the shift from a logic of in-forming to entanglement is advisable, then this is because entanglements allow us to think in terms of all entangled objects contributing differences of their own as they weave themselves together, rather than thinking in terms of only one agency contributing all the important differences.  The philosopher Karen Barad suggests that we think these sorts of entanglements in terms of “diffraction patterns” in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway.  A diffraction pattern is what occurs when waves intersect with one another. You throw a pebble into a pond and then you throw another pebble into a pond.  Both pebbles create concentric patterns of waves.  At some point these waves intersect creating a distinctive pattern as a result of the differences embodied in both of the waves.  This is the perfect metaphor.  Rather than thinking of one object overdetermining all the other objects by actively giving form to those objects, we should instead think of objects on a flat ontological plain among one another creating distinctive diffraction patterns as their differences interact with one another.

This is my strategy for thinking about language.  I treat language as one object relating to other non-linguistic objects.  The question then becomes one of how these differences get woven into one another in distinctive ways.  Rather than language overdetermining non-linguistic objects, we instead get a sort of struggle of differences as non-linguistic objects disrupt language in various ways and as symbolic objects disrupt non-linguistic objects in a variety of ways.