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The Truman Show

by on February 21, 2013

  In the film The Truman Show, the title character spends his entire life as the subject of a documentary, which is taking place in an arcological dome, a sur-reality. He is unaware of his participation in this documentary, but begins to suspect the existence of an “outside”: out of his house, out of his village, out of his world. And eventually, he finds it. He sails a boat to the edge of the dome, and, after crashing into the wall, he finds a door. He finds it unlocked, and exits, into the reality outside the documentary.

            I’m not sure why the example of The Truman Show didn’t occur to me in earlier weeks, but there’s something particularly lucid about Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects that seems to have jostled this film loose from my memory. It seems to me that we are presented with the arcological dome of correlation and have two options: 1) The path of the correlationist, for whom, as Bryant argues there is something other than thought (or language or other social structures), but we have no access to this other except through thought. For the correlationist, knowing that something exists beyond our access to it inherently means that this something exists within our access to it, since we have conceived of it. Harman, Meillasoux and Bryant all address this complain, and all three offer counter arguments. Bryants seems slightly less satisfying, however. He offers the following tautology—“being beyond our access to it is precisely a form of being to which we have no access”—to say that arguments against his premise are meaningless.

            Yet, his onticology seems, at least at this early stage, well developed and inoffensive to a reader who has already passed through the fire of Harman’s and Meillasoux’s OOP and Speculative Materialism, respectively. Onticology, briefly:

  1. natural beings are just one subset of real beings
  2. objects are independent of their relations
  3. objects are not constituted by their relations
  4. no relation ever exhausts all the forces within an object
  5. objects must somehow be capable of perturbing one another
  6. scale and whether or not something is an aggregate is irrelevant to whether or not something is a substance

Bryant seems to positions #5 above in opposition to Harman, whose objects he characterizes as “in a vacuum.” Yet, I’m not sure that Harman disallows this perturbation. Presumably, an object can be obliterated by another object, even though it only perceives the sensual qualities of the obliterating object (“Dear me, that bus has alarming density”). I’d like to consider this admittedly aggressive domain of object relations further.

            What I’m most interested in for purely personal gain is the potential for Bryant’s ideas to refigure the discipline. He gestured at this in the introduction, proposing a synthesis between the material basis of cultural studies and the content focus of the humanities. This synthesis, he suggests, is achieved through a refocus on “entanglements” which “allow us to maintain the irreducibility, heterogeneity, and autonomy of various type of entities while investigating how they influence each other.”  I look forward to reading further and considering how this entanglement may serve as a method for literary criticism


From → Quadruple Object

  1. jmdaven permalink

    I found Bryant’s work at least more engaging and perhaps even more convincing than Harman’s, and I think an obvious and perhaps the main factor is “position #5”. One of my consistent and main gripes with the The Quadruple Object is this incapacity for real objects to encounter one another. It remains unclear in his system how the sensual world has the power or influence to destroy and create real objects.

  2. I’ve also been thinking about the potential engagement between Bryant’s ideas and literary studies/the humanities. I picked up a copy of Moretti’s “Graphs, maps, trees” the other day, after you mentioned the book in class and sparked my interest. Only a couple pages in – but it seems to me as if there are at least a few interesting points of overlap, of relevance to the question of the changing disciplines. There seems to be some degree of shared interest (concern? methodology?) with regards to Moretti’s idea of ‘distant reading.’ In moving back from close reading and examining the novel in terms of relatively fewer and more coherent abstractions of form, we can examine interconnections – this reminded me of Bryant’s discussion of systems theory and allopoeisis/autopoeisis, and the differences in complexity between system and environment. Seems to point in the direction of notions of ecology, etc. There was also something in there about genre cycles being akin “two-faced Janus,” which I’m pretty sure is a favorite OOP analogy.

  3. I still am really struggling with point 6, and I think I complained about that in relation to Harman as well. When Harman said the reductionist position undermines an object, I understood the logic, but couldn’t agree because I kept getting back to a point that an atom is an object on its own, but not when connected to something? So, does an atom relinquish its objecthood by being incorporated into an aggregate? Wouldn’t that mean that an object is exhausted by becoming a part of an aggregate, and is thus exhausted by its relation to other objects as both Harman and Bryant argue against? That makes NO sense to me. By that logic, a tumor is not a tumor, but just a piece of a human being. So a tumor would be a part of me the same way my stomach or my brain is? In the same way, any virus, infection, or bacteria etc removed from inside a body is then an amputation? I just can’t fathom this, and neither has made an argument that carries any more validity to me than “because I said so.” Someone please clarify this, because I am feeling more and more like this is far from a minor stumbling block.

    • To clarify, I don’t believe it is Harman’s or Bryant’s argument that an atom would lose its objecthood by becoming part of a molecule. Instead, the point is that when hydrogen and oxygen, for example, for water that the newly created water molecule cannot be reduced to its atomic parts (I.e., it has qualities and capacities that are different from those of oxygen and hydrogen). Meanwhile, the oxygen and hydrogen are still there and not exhausted by their entry into the relations that produce water.

  4. “I look forward to reading further and considering how this entanglement may serve as a method for literary criticism.”

    If you’re not familiar with Georges Bataille, I suggest you look to him for this kind of a literary criticism. He was influential in the genesis of post-structuralism, serving as an inspiration to Derrida and Lacan. He developed the idea of “heterology”, being, as I understand it, similar to what you’re talking about here. It’s not quite an exploration of the entanglements between entities, but in terms of literary criticism it may be as close as you can get.

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