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The anarchy and autonomy of objects

by on February 21, 2013

I am still working my way through the third chapter of The Democracy of Objects, so I may return to this post to edit/add content later, as I read more. Indeed, much of what follows below pertains to elements of Bryant’s work that won’t emerge until chapter six of the text.

An explanation for this, perhaps hubristic, anticipation on my part: while reading through the first three chapters of Democracy of Objects, I was reminded of a entry on Bryant’s blog that I read (with interest and bewilderment, in equal parts) over the summer — Lacan, Anarchy, Masculinity, and Psychosis. Although I was at the time entirely unfamiliar with Lacan’s graph of sexuation  (and am only marginally less so now), I was intrigued by Bryant’s characterization of his thought as “ontologically anarchistic”  — as he puts it, The Democracy of Objects “probably should have been entitled The Anarchy of Objects.”

This line stuck in my head because, well, anarchy — cool, bring it on. Beyond my reflexively positive reception to any variety of thought espousing any variety of anarchist philosophy, I was especially receptive to ontological anarchy after having read, a few months earlier, Tim Morton’s brief essay, Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones. The essay offers up one of the more concise and accessible overview’s of Morton’s understanding/phylum of object-oriented ontology that I have encountered thus far, which Morton carries out via the analogization of Hakim Bey’s bizarre and prescient anarchist manifesto-cum-prose poem, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (a text that, beyond its deployment Morton, is in my view of especial interest to any thinker of recent developments in speculative philosophy — an intuition I have been trying to explore further the past couple months).

In Bryant’s onticology, autonomy is described as the “defining feature” of “each and every object” (74). For a particular entity to be autonomous is for the entity to be, in some way, a part of something else, but to also retain its own particular tendency/ordering characteristics — something that seems to me not at all dissimilar from the category of qualities in Bryant’s onticology. Bryant’s description of an object’s qualities overlaps quite a bit with Morton’s characterization, in the above-linked essay, of objects as radiating zones — as not existing in time, but rather emitting time. The object is not in time, rather it times (verb). Similarly, in Bryant’s onticology “we should not speak of qualities as something an object possesses, has, or is, but rather as acts, verbs, or something that an object does” (89). When applied to the defining feature of the object, its autonomy, this formula results in an object that is not so much possessed of tendencies, but rather an object that tendencies (verb). Such an object is one that resists stasis of any sort — it is a non-static entity. Or, in sociopolitical terms, we have here a non-statist object — an anarchist object. I find the possible implications of such a notion endlessly fascinating. Of course, numerous questions and uncertainties remain for me; but there is still quite a bit of Bryant’s text left for me to read.

By way of conclusion, one point that seems important and about which I am, at present, uncertain: what are the implications of this discussion of objects their qualities for the position of time as a category in Bryant’s thought? That is, is Bryant suggesting that we are regard time as a quality of an object? And what does this, well, mean? I get the sense that this question may come up in Bryant’s fourth chapter, “The Interior of Objects.” I recall reading, somewhere, the assertion (by Ian Bogost, I believe?) that time inhabits the interior of objects. My understanding of this all is, appropriately it seems, very much in flux.

Anarchy in the UB, everybody.

[EDIT ( 2/21/13 @ 9:37pm]
Also, I’m pretty sure Levi Bryant would agree that Popeye is real. This is important. Really — no joke.

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5 Comments
    • I have noticed Lacan’s graph of sexuation come up frequently in recent discussions on the various blends of SR and OOO – most recently, in the context of a seminar discussion on Meillasoux’s notion of contingency, which the Lacanians would situate on the right side of the graph. I have to confess that, beyond the obligatory anthology essays, most of my experience with Lacan to this point has been referential; I still use GPS to navigate my way through the graph.

      I couldn’t agree more about reading more SF. I recently picked up Bogdanov’s Red Star, after learning that the anarchistic geologist in Robinson’s Red Mars is named after him. Also, apparently Bogdanov’s tectology anticipates a lot of later work in systems theory and cybernetics – but it’s been difficult getting a hold of a translated copy of the work.

  1. jmdaven permalink

    As in Harman and really as in every ontology, the political implications of Bryant’s Democracy of Objects are somewhat controversial. It would seem the goal is of course some sort of democracy, but such a restrictive ex-structure seems to go against the strong sense of autonomy and endo-structure that Bryant emphasizes in all objects. Some sort of anarchy seems perhaps more probable, or even some sort of tyranny emerging from out of this flat ontology? Could one object or one structure emerge from his flat ontology to dominate the rest?

    • I would say absolutely that tyranny is possible in a flat ontology. Since we have witnessed tyranny historically (and in the contemporary moment), an ontology that precluded the possibility of tyranny would be incomplete. This does point to one of the real issues surrounding ontology: should an ontology indicate how the world “should” be? That is, should an ontology include a teleology or eschatology? It strikes me that the basic complaint lodged against SR and OOO is that it doesn’t come with an explicit political program (even though the scholars involved certainly have politics). The correlationist argument is that everything is inherently ideological and thus attributes various reactionary political positions to SR/OOO.

      The argument in Bryant, I think, would have to be that while there is certainly politics/ideology at work in his text and in the work of philosophers, that the objects being discussed do not necessarily intersect with ideology, at least as we common conceive the term. It might be interesting to suggest that objects have ideology in a way that is similar to their capacity for cognition. Of course their ideological interests may be wholly foreign and even undetectable to humans, even as they play some mediating role in our own political deliberations. Political goals like justice and equality are almost always “for us” (humans or some subset of humans). For issues like climate change, it is maybe easier to see how nonhumans need to be included in politics than it is with other issues like education or international relations, but the point would be to recognize that nonhuman objects are participating. However none of this tells us what we should do, precisely.

    • I certainly agree that attempting to transpose a specific sociopolitical ideology onto Bryant’s ontology would be, well, somewhat reductive it seems. And I by no means feel the need to insist that onticology align itself with a particular ideology, teleology, etc. (Of course, this isn’t to say that it’s unprecedented for an ideology to be thrust upon an ontology – or at least extrapolated from it. I’m thinking of Hegel here, specifically) But I am interested in Bryant’s deployment of the terminology of politics – democracy, anarchy, etc. – even more so because of onticology’s lack of a political telos, in the correlationist sense.

      Your point about tyranny certainly seems to hold true – as Alex said, to preclude such a possibility would render Bryant’s ontology incomplete. Regarding the flatness of Bryant’s ontology: I understand it, thus far, as a flatness of being, in that all substances and qualities are equally real – there are no differences of kind. However, this doesn’t seem to preclude differences of degree – that is, that different objects will perturb/mediate other objects and information in different manners and, plausibly, certain objects will perturb/mediate other objects more prolifically or more forcefully, while still being no more nor less real than other objects.

      An analogy, cautiously posited – the police state is no different in kind than a grasshopper, with both being equally real, but is vastly different in degree of influence (although I hesitate to say “different in extent/power of influence”, as I am wondering now, how/if quantitative differences of degree would be evaluated here?)

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