Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    6. The Four Theses of Flat Ontology  6. The Four Theses of Flat Ontology  > 6.1. Two Ontological Discourses: Lacan's Graphs of Sexuation and Two Ways of Thinking Being

    6.1. Two Ontological Discourses: Lacan's Graphs of Sexuation and Two Ways of Thinking Being

    Onticology proposes what might be called, drawing on DeLanda's term yet broadening it, a flat ontology. Flat ontology is a complex philosophical concept that bundles together a variety of ontological theses under a single term. First, due to the split characteristic of all objects, flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself. In this regard, onticology proposes an ontology resonant with Derrida's critique of metaphysics insofar as, in its treatment of beings as withdrawn, it undermines any pretensions to presence within being. If this thesis is persuasive, then metaphysics can no longer function as a synonym for “metaphysics of presence”, nor substance as a synonym for “presence”, but rather an ontology has been formulated that overcomes the primacy of presence. In this section, I articulate this logic in terms of Lacan's graphs of sexuation. Here I believe that those graphs have little to tell us about masculine or feminine sexuality—for reasons I will outline in what follows—but a great deal to tell us about ontologies of immanence or flat ontologies and ontologies of transcendence. Second, flat ontology signifies that the world or the universe does not exist. I will develop the argument for this strange claim in what follows, but for the moment it is important to recognize the definite article in this claim. The claim that the world doesn't exist is the claim that there is no super-object that gathers all other objects together in a single, harmonious unity. Third, following Harman, flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation. To be sure, flat ontology readily recognizes that humans have unique powers and capacities and that how humans relate to the world is a topic more than worthy of investigation, yet nothing about this establishes that humans must be included in every inter-object relation or that how humans relate to objects differs in kind from how other entities relate to objects. Finally, fourth, flat ontology argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects. While indeed some objects might influence the collectives to which they belong to a greater extent than others, it doesn't follow from this that these objects are more real than others. Existence, being, is a binary such that something either is or is not.

    Apart from the fact that I believe these propositions to be ontologically true, the broader strategic import of the concept of flat ontology is to diminish the obsessive focus on the human, subjective and the cultural within social, political, cultural theory and philosophy. In particular, my ambition is to diminish an almost exclusive focus on propositions, representations, norms, signs, narratives, discourses, and so on, so as to cultivate a greater appreciation for nonhuman actors such as animate and inanimate natural entities, technologies, and such. To be clear, in seeking to diminish a focus on these sorts of actors, my aim is not to exclude these sorts of actors. Rather, I seek both to synthesize divergent trends within contemporary Continental social, political, cultural, and philosophical thought and broaden the field of inquiry available to these discourses and debates. Within the framework of contemporary Continental thought, it would not be too far off the mark to say that there are two highly different cultures. Within the one culture, we have a focus on lived experience, text, discourse, signifiers, signs, representation, and meaning. This is a form of inquiry dominated by figures such as the various phenomenologists, Derrida, Lacan, Žižek, and Foucault, for example. Here there is very little in the way of a discussion of the role played by nonhuman actors in collectives involving human beings. Rather, nonhuman entities are treated as screens upon which humans project their intentions, meanings, signs, and discourses, rather than as genuine actors in their own right. They are instead passive matter awaiting formatting by humans. This is not entirely fair to the theorists of this culture, as Foucault devotes a great deal of attention to institutions, architecture, and practices, while Derrida recognizes the importance of simple agencies like writing in the most literal sense and digital encoding, yet nonetheless, these are dominant tendencies within this culture or orientation of theory.

    By contrast, the other culture ranges widely over nonhuman actors or objects and pays careful attention to the differences contributed by nonhuman agencies such as technologies, animals, environments, and so on. Here we might think of monumental intellects such as Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles, the work of McLuhan, Kittler, Ong, and Stiegler, the later work of Deleuze and Guattari, the thought of Latour and Stengers, engagements with technology such as that found in Ian Bogost's work, pathbreaking work such as that found in Protevi, DeLanda, and Massumi, ecologists like Timothy Morton, Marx's meditations on how the money-form, technologies, and factories change our very identities, critical animal theorists such as Cary Wolfe, and a host of other thinkers. Within this culture, we find two important trends. On the one hand, there is a tendency to decentralize the human by describing the impact of the nonhuman in the form of technology and other inhuman agencies on collectives involving humans and how these agencies cannot be reduced to human intentions, signs, meanings, norms, signifiers, discourses, and so on.

    On the other hand, there is, in this culture, a speculative tendency, deserving of the title of “Spinozism”, that ranges freely over the “experience” of nonhuman entities, plumbing the worlds of other entities without being obliged to relate everything back to the human. Graham Harman's universe is a universe populated by circuses and clowns, vampires, unnamed monsters, fire and cotton, and a host of other frightening and delightful carnivalesque entities that erupt across his pages like so many apparitions that simultaneously withdraw and capture us with their inherent fascination and allure. Jane Bennett's universe is inhabited by the vital forces of abandoned bottle caps, dead rats, trash heaps undergoing various forms of bio-chemical decomposition, and a host of other objects. Ian Bogost is currently writing his Alien Phenomenology, which promises to bring us into the subterranean experience of all sorts of other entities such as computer software we scarcely notice in our day to day existence. Donna Haraway's universe is pervaded with wolves, microbes, lab reports and articles, various types of primates, plants, and all sorts of laboratory equipment. Karen Barad's universe is populated by all sorts of particles, instruments and waves.

    What I aim for with the concept of flat ontology is a synthesis of these two cultures. I desire an ontology capable of doing justice to these strange nonhuman actors, capable of respecting these strange strangers on their own terms, and an ontology capable of doing justice to the phenomenological and the semiotic. Moreover, I believe that such a project is absolutely vital to the future of contemporary thought. The first of these two cultures is regnant in the contemporary world of theory. The aim of diminishing the primacy of the human is not nihilistic nor designed to exclude the human, but is premised on the thesis that, so long as the first culture maintains center stage, we are thoroughly unable to properly comprehend human collectives nor theorize strategic ways of transforming them. In this connection, flat ontology makes two key claims. First, humans are not at the center of being, but are among beings. Second, objects are not a pole opposing a subject, but exist in their own right, regardless of whether any other object or human relates to them. Humans, far from constituting a category called “subject” that is opposed to “object”, are themselves one type of object among many.

    The difference between philosophies of transcendence and philosophies of immanence such as those advocated by the flat ontology of onticology can be thematized in terms of Lacan's graphs of sexuation. Here my aim is to argue that onticology and its conception of objects aligns itself with the feminine side of Lacan's graph of sexuation. Before proceeding to outline this congruence and the difference between ontological discourses organized around withdrawal and ontological discourses organized around presence (the masculine side of Lacan's graphs of sexuation), it is first necessary to make some qualifications. Within the history of philosophy, there has been a long history of associating women with nature, being, and passivity coupled with an objectification of women that denies them agency as subjects in their own right. Onticology certainly does not wish to align itself with these unfortunate tendencies, yet doesn't it risk doing precisely this in arguing that the true discourse of being falls on the side of the feminine side of Lacan's graphs of sexuation? Moreover, doesn't it fall into an even worse plight in treating being as composed of objects?

    There are a few points worth making in response to this entirely justified concern. First, and above all, it is necessary to recognize that it is difficult to see what, if anything, Lacan's graphs of sexuation have to do with sex or gender. As Bruce Fink articulates this point,

    [i]t should be recalled that sexuation is not biological sex: What Lacan calls masculine structure and feminine structure have to do not with one's biological organs but rather with the kind of jouissance one is able to obtain. There is not, to the best of my knowledge, any easy overlap between sexuation and “sexual identity”, or between sexuation and what is sometimes referred to as “sexual orientation”. [...]. When I refer to men in the ensuing discussion, I mean those people who, regardless of biological sex, fall under certain formulas—what Lacan calls “the formulas of sexuation”—[...] and when I refer to women I mean those people who, regardless of their biological sex, fall under the [feminine side] of the formulas.[265]

    Having spent more time than I care to admit with the Lacanian secondary literature and the seminars in which he develops his account of sexuation, I believe that Bruce Fink is essentially correct in this judgment. While Lacan does indeed articulate two different structures of the deadlocks that beset desire and jouissance, it is not at all clear why these two structures should be called “masculine” and “feminine”. In my view, Lacan fails to establish any direct link between these structures and sex and gender. For example, any subject, whether biologically male or female—assuming, questionably, that we can even speak univocally of subjects being biologically male or female—can occupy either side of Lacan's graphs of sexuation. Put differently, biologically “male” subjects can enjoy or fail to enjoy as feminine subjects and biologically “female” subjects can enjoy or fail to enjoy as masculine subjects.

    The strongest argument in favor of associating the graphs of sexuation with the masculine and the feminine arises from the fact that the masculine side of the graph of sexuation can be read as a highly abstract and formalized version of the structure of Freud's patriarchal Oedipus Complex and myth of the Primal Father in Totem and Taboo. If the Oedipus Complex and the myth of the Primal Father are understood to be intrinsically patriarchal and phallocentric structures, then there is some reason to associate the masculine side of the graph of sexuation with forms of jouissance and desire related to masculinity. However, here again we encounter the question of why the feminine side of the graph of sexuation should be associated with women. We could just as easily refer to the two sides of the graphs of sexuation as outlining logics of immanence (the feminine) and logics of transcendence (the masculine), or logics of the “not-all” (the feminine) and logics of exception (the masculine).

    A second point to be made is that in arguing that the objects of onticology and object-oriented philosophy fall on the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation, it is imperative to recall that, within the framework of onticology, objects are neither passive nor a pole opposed to the subject. Within the framework of object-oriented ontology, there are not two domains of being, one belonging to the domain of the subject, the other belonging to the domain of the object, but rather just one type of being: objects. On the one hand, we can thus say that subjects are not a pole opposed to objects, but are themselves a type of object. They are objects among other objects. To be sure, what we refer to as subjects have special powers and capacities, but they are nonetheless a sort of object in the world. On the other hand, far from being passive clods awaiting formatting from humans and getting worked over by humans, objects, as theorized by onticology, are themselves, following Latour, actors or actants that are themselves agents. In this regard, treating objects as falling on the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation in no way suggests that women are passive objects. To the contrary, the feminine side of the graph of sexuation turns out to be the side of agency.

    With these caveats in mind, I now turn to Lacan's graphs of sexuation. I will first discuss the graphs of sexuation within the framework of Lacanian theory and then reformulate them in ontological terms. Lacan's graphs of sexuation attempt to symbolize or display certain deadlocks that occur whenever we attempt to totalize the symbolic order or the world. Lacan argues that whenever we attempt to totalize the world, certain deadlocks emerge preventing such totalities from being successfully accomplished. Because of the absence and metonymy introduced into the world of the subject by language, Lacan contends that each potential object of jouissance contains a remainder of absence or lack that prevents it from conferring complete enjoyment. Complete enjoyment would require the totalization or completion of the symbolic, yet such totalizations always fail. Moreover, there is not merely one way in which we attempt to totalize the world and for this totalization to fail, but rather two ways. These two ways of failing are what Lacan refers to as the “masculine” and the “feminine”. These two forms of failure, in their turn, generate two very different structures of desire and jouissance. Put differently, depending on how the subject is structured as either a “masculine” or a “feminine” subject, different forms of jouissance will be available to the subject. The term “jouissance” is highly polysemous within Lacanian theory, however within the framework of the graphs of sexuation we can treat jouissance as the sort of enjoyment open to a subject. Put more precisely, the two graphs explain why our jouissance comes up short or lacking as a result of our being enmeshed within the symbolic order. As Bruce Fink remarks, “[w]e find the pleasures available to us in life inadequate, and it is owing to that inadequacy that we expound systems of knowledge—perhaps, first and foremost, to explain why our pleasure is inadequate and then to propose how to change things so that it will not be”.[266]

    Within the Lacanian framework, this deficit of jouissance is not accidental but rather structural. In other words, our deficit of jouissance arises not from an accidental lack such that if we could only find the appropriate object we would experience complete enjoyment, but rather is a structural feature of how we are enmeshed in language or the symbolic order. These structural impossibilities of complete jouissance, in their turn, generate fantasies to account for both why jouissance is lacking and how this lack might be surmounted. For example, racists are often particularly attentive to the imagined jouissance of other groups, believing these groups to both possess a greater jouissance than themselves, and believing that the other group has perhaps stolen their jouissance from them. The racist might endlessly talk about how the other group is lazy, how they get free rides from the government, how they are promiscuous, how they lack moral values, and so on. Based on such fantasies, the racist might imagine all sorts of ways to take action against these other groups so as to get back their stolen jouissance. It's not difficult to discern such mechanisms at work in misogyny and homophobia as well. The tragedy of this sort of jouissance is two-fold. On the one hand, these dark fantasies lead to the persecution of other people and groups based on an imagined jouissance that one believes these other groups have stolen. The pursuit of jouissance purported to be lost and stolen thus riddles the social field with conflict. On the other hand, the belief that total jouissance exists, that it is possible to attain complete jouissance, makes it all the more difficult to enjoy the jouissance that is available because it always falls short of imagined jouissance. As a consequence, the subject suffers from fantasies of total jouissance that transform life into cold ashes. Filled with envy at the jouissance one believes to be enjoyed by other groups, and crushed by bitterness at the absence of jouissance in one’s own life, the subject becomes unable to enjoy anything.

    To illustrate the structural deadlocks that arise when we attempt to totalize the symbolic order, Lacan resorts to the resources of symbolic logic:[267]

    Table 3
    Table 3

    The upper portions of the graph filled with equations refers to the structural deadlocks that inhabit the symbolic. The left side is the masculine side, whereas the right side is the feminine side. These refer to logics of exception and the “not-all” respectively. The symbols that appear in the lower portion of the graph refer to the sorts of jouissance available to subjects depending on whether they fall under the left or right-hand side of the graph. Within symbolic logic, “∃” is what is known as an “existential quantifier”. Existential quantifiers refer to partial collections such as “some”, “many”, “one” and so on. Thus, for example, the proposition “some cats are black” would be written in symbolic logic as follows: ∃xCx & Bx. Translated back into ordinary language, this would read, “there exists at least one entity such that this entity is a cat and this entity is black”. The upper case letters are thus predicates qualifying a subject or entity, while the lower case letters are variables or arguments. Similarly, in symbolic logic, the symbol “∀” is what is known as a “universal quantifier”. Universal quantifiers refer to expressions such as “all” and “every”. Thus, the proposition “all humans are mortal” would be translated into symbolic logic as follows: ∀xHx → Mx. Translated into ordinary language, this would read, “for all entities, if x is human then x is mortal”. The arrow thus reads as a conditional or an “if/then” statement. Finally it will be noted that over some of the expressions in the upper portions of Lacan's graph a bar appears. This bar denotes negation. Within what follows, I will use the following symbol to denote negation: “~”.

    In all four of the propositions populating the upper portion of Lacan's graph of sexuation we notice the symbol “Φ” appearing as a predicate qualifying “x”. Within the framework of the upper portion of the graphs, this symbol refers to the phallic function. Like many of Lacan's mathemes, Φ is highly polysemous depending on the context in which it appears. Within the present context, Φ does not refer to the phallus—at least in the upper portion of the graph—much less to the male organ of the penis. Rather, Φ refers to castration, our submission to language, or our submission to the Law. In other words, Φ refers to the manner in which we must pursue jouissance through language and therefore encounter a priori restrictions or limitations to jouissance.

    We are now in a position to read the propositions in the upper portion of Lacan's graphs of sexuation. The top and bottom propositions are to be read together or in relation to one another as embodying a sort of deadlock or contradiction. Thus, on the left or masculine side, the top proposition reads ∃x~Φx, while the bottom proposition reads ∀xΦx. Translated into ordinary language, the first proposition reads, “there exists an entity such that this entity is not subject to the phallic function”, while the second proposition reads, “for all entities, x is submitted to the phallic function”. When read together, the deadlock or contradiction embodied in these two propositions is that of a fantasy held by the subject in which complete enjoyment is possible, coupled with an existence where all jouissance comes up short by virtue of being subordinated to the phallic function.

    One of the great advantages of Lacan's abstraction in these formulations is that it allows us to discern a common structure in a number of diverse domains. Not only does Lacan's handful of symbols allow us to discern the basic structure of the Oedipus Complex and the myth of the Primal Father in Totem and Taboo, but we can also see it as articulating the basic relationship between a monarch and his subjects, God and his creatures, the Cartesian subject and other objects, a celebrity and his fans, and so on. In each of these cases, we have the fantasy of a subject that either has complete knowledge, complete power, or complete enjoyment coupled with a plurality of subjects or entities that are lacking in knowledge, power, or enjoyment. In the case of the Primal Father, for example, we have an entity that has no limitations on his jouissance. Not only does he possess all the women of the tribe, he is also able to enjoy incest with his mother and daughters. Similarly, in the case of the Oedipus, the subject encounters a limit to his enjoyment in the incest prohibition. Likewise, in The Concept of the Political, Schmitt's monarch enjoys a strange status of exception, simultaneously being above and outside the law and therefore enjoying absolute power, while also being the origin of the law (castration/limitation).[268] What we thus get here is a logic of universality defined by exception. In order for the universal to establish itself in the form of the law, there must be a shadowy and phantasmatic exception that allows the boundary of the law to establish or ground itself. The sovereign need not truly have absolute power, nor must the Primal Father really have existed. All that is necessary is the unconscious belief in such exceptions to the failure of jouissance. If it proves impossible to totalize the symbolic order under this model, then this is because such totalization always requires an impossible exception outside that order, whereas the signifier is always differentially constituted without positive terms.

    On the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, we get not a logic of exception, but a logic of the “not-all”. The top proposition of the feminine side of the graph of sexuation reads, ~∃x~Φx, while the lower proposition reads, ~∀xΦx. Translated into ordinary language, the first proposition reads, “there does not exist an entity that is not submitted to the phallic function”. By contrast, the second proposition reads, “not all of x is submitted to the phallic function”. In other words, on the feminine side, something escapes from the law of language, castration, or the phallic function. It will be noted that whereas the masculine side constitutes a universal (the universality of the law) through an exception, we find no exception on the feminine side, nor do we find any universality. Instead of universality, what we find is the “not-all” or the “not-whole”. Two consequences follow from this: first, insofar as there is no constitutive exception within the structure of feminine sexuality, this structure can be described in terms of immanence. Where the structure of masculine sexuality presupposes a transcendent term outside the world or law in some way or another, within the field of feminine structure we find only a flat plane with no transcendent outside or exception.

    Second, the absence of a constitutive exception leads to Lacan's much maligned and misunderstood claim that the woman does not exist.[269] Here we must attend to the role of the definite article in Lacan's formulation. Lacan's thesis is that, in order for a class to constitute itself as existing or universal, there must be an exception that defines the rule. If, according to Lacan, we can say what a male is, then this is because all men share the common characteristic of being castrated or subordinated by the Law defined by the phallic function. This law is guaranteed by the constitutive exception that allows the law to be determined. There is no analogous instance on the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, therefore it is impossible to constitute a universal class of women. The upshot of this is not that women do not exist, but rather that woman, the woman, does not constitute a closed and defined class. Put in more positive terms, women belong to the set of the singular, the individual, the different. They form an open set without any shared or overarching predicate defining a universal identity, thereby undermining any pretension to essence or identity.

    In response to the failures of totalization found on both sides of the graph of sexuation, forms of jouissance appear as attempts to supplement and surmount this failure. On the masculine side we witness $, the symbol for the barred subject, pointing at a, the matheme for objet a. It will be noted that the form of jouissance that appears on the masculine side of the graph of sexuation also has the structure of Lacan's formula for fantasy, ($ <> a), read “barred subject punch objet a”. In chapter four, we already saw that objet a is the remainder produced as a result of the subject's entrance into language. As a consequence, objet a is not an empirical or existing object, but a sort of remainder, excess, or irreducible fractional quantity marking that which cannot be integrated into the symbolic. Lacan refers to the objet a not as the object of desire, but as the object-cause of desire. Objet a forever propels the masculine subject forward, seeking a lost object he never had to begin with. Nonetheless, within the framework of fantasy, while objet a is not the object of desire but the cause of desire, various objects come to function as surrogates or stand-ins for objet a. Within the domain of unconscious fantasy, these surrogates are thought as that which, if destroyed or gained, would complete the subject, allowing the subject to surmount the lack that characterizes his being. In this respect, all fantasies are dual, organized like a Möbius strip, containing both a hypothesis as to what must be gained in order to surmount lack and a hypothesis as to what caused the loss of that object which would complete him. For example, the anti-Semite might believe that Jews are responsible for his economic woes and that money would provide the satisfaction that he seeks. This belief in the possibility of total jouissance arises from the upper proposition of the masculine side of the graph of sexuation, ∃x~Φx, and the unconscious belief that either an uncastrated subject exists or is possible.

    Lacan often refers to phallic jouissance or the sort of jouissance found in objet a as deferred jouissance. As Bruce Fink puts it, “Lacan associates phallic jouissance with organ pleasure, the pleasure of the genitalia [...]; the idea here is that one must endlessly defer or altogether give up organ pleasure to obtain another kind of pleasure”.[270] Part of the reason for this deferral is that, were the subject to actually reunite with the semblance of objet a, he would discover that the semblance of objet a is not “it”. Thus, for example, Lacan argues that obsessionals, which are associated with masculine sexuation, have a desire for an impossible desire.[271] Through a fantasy structure organized around an impossible desire, the masculine subject can thereby sustain his desire and protect against the disappointment of jouissance coming up short.

    In many respects, masculine jouissance can be described as solipsistic and masturbatory. In Encore, Lacan notoriously claims that there is no sexual relationship.[272] In the case of the masculine sexuated subject, whether biologically male or female and whether one's partner is male or female, we can see how this is the case. The masculine sexuated subject relates not to his partner qua subject, but rather to objet a. Returning to our discussion of the Lacanian clinic in chapter 4, the masculine sexuated subject attempts to reduce or abolish the subject as Other, as autopoietically closed, relating only to the Other's demand and objet a. I refer to this way of relating to the Other and the world as “Malkovichism”. In Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, we are told the strange tale of a passage in an office building that allows you to enter John Malkovich's mind and experience what it is like to be John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. At a certain point in the film, John Malkovich becomes wise to what is going on and himself goes through the passage. When Malkovich goes through the tunnel and experiences his own experience, he has the harrowing experience of seeing everyone else, male and female, with his own head, speaking not ordinary language, but endlessly repeating his name: “Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!” In short, Malkovich is forcibly confronted with his own narcissism and phallic economy of jouissance. What we encounter here is correlationism in its purest form. Within the correlationist frame of thought, the world is reduced to a passive screen that merely reflects our intentions, meanings, signs, narratives, and discourses. Within the masculine economy of jouissance, one relates not to the partner but to Žižek's ticklish object which functions like a strange attractor bringing the subject into existence. In this connection, Lacan makes the joke that masculine jouissance is “hommosexual”. Here Lacan is punning on the French “homme” or “male”, and “homosexuality”. His point is not that all men are homosexuals, but rather that masculinely sexuated subjects desire the same or identity and therefore strive to banish the alterity encountered in desire. Lacan's point is not that men only desire other men, but rather that masculine desire desires the same in the form of objet a or the fetish object.

    On the feminine side of the graph of sexuation we encounter a very different form of jouissance. On the one hand, we see not one arrow, as in the case of masculine sexuation, but rather two arrows. On the other hand, we see not the barred subject, $, but rather the barred “La”. La refers to non-existent woman that cannot be totalized under a single category or identity. In the lower portion of the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, we see an arrow pointing at Φ. Here we encounter the polysemy of Lacan's mathemes. In this context, Φ does not seem to represent the phallic function or castration, but rather power, potency, or a master. Lacan's somewhat sexist thesis here seems to be that the feminine sexuated subject, whether biological male or female, can find jouissance by identifying with a partner that embodies Φ. Such a subject might be someone that possesses political power, knowledge, celebrity, prestige, physical strength, skill, and so on. The idea would thus be that the feminine sexuated subject, who can find no signifier within the symbolic to define or fix her identity, identifies with Φ so as to confer an identity upon herself. Whereas La marks the inability for language to complete or totalize itself and therefore an inability to produce a fixed or stable identity within the symbolic, √ creates the illusion of a fixed or stable identity. In this regard we can see the impossibility of the sexual relation in terms of feminine sexuation, insofar as the femine sexuated subject relates to his partner not as a subject but as a semblance of Φ.

    This reading of La as it relates to Φ seems to recommend itself as a consequence of Lacan's discourse of the hysteric, which Lacan associates with the feminine. In the discourse of the hysteric, we have the barred subject addressing itself to the master or master-signifier, demanding to be told what it is:

    In the discourse of the hysteric, the subject addresses the Other or master from the standpoint of his split. This split results from the inability of the symbolic or language to provide the subject with a signifier that would fix or name his identity within the symbolic. In short, the hysterical subject calls on the other to tell him what he is. This inability of language to provide a signifier that would found the subject arises from the essence of language itself. As Lacan remarks in The Logic of Fantasy, “it is of the nature of each and every signifier that it cannot signify itself”.[273] Insofar as the signifier cannot signify itself, it always requires another signifier to produce effects of signification. In this respect, signifiers have the structure of sets that do not include themselves, and Lacan does not hesitate to draw a parallel with Russell's paradox pertaining to the impossibility of a set of all sets that do not include themselves. The net result of this is that there cannot be a “universe of discourse” or totality of language because it will always be beset by paradox from within.[274] The consequence of this is that there can be no stable signifier that could ground the subject's identity, for each signifier will necessarily refer to another signifier without any possibility of completeness. It is this structure of language that accounts for the divided structure of the subject. Moreover, in the position of truth in the discourse of the hysteric, we encounter objet a as that remainder that is always lost within language. It is this remainder that literally drives the subject forward, forever looking for that signifier that would ground identity, and further alienating himself through his speech. The product of this discourse, we note, is knowledge, S2, produced as a result of the hysteric's demand. Indeed, Lacan claims that the discourse of the hysteric is the only discourse that produces knowledge.[275] In this connection, we can treat Φ and the master or S1 to which the hysteric addresses himself as equivalent.

    At this point, there are a couple of points worth noting. Attentive readers will have noted that I have been referring to the hysterical subject in masculine terms. First, while Lacan associates hysteria with the feminine, any neurotic subject that undergoes analysis must enter into the discourse of the hysteric or begin asking the question “what am I for the Other?” Second, and more fundamentally, however, both Lacan and Freud argue that the subject is, at root, a hysterical subject. As Žižek puts it, “the status of the subject as such is hysterical. The subject is constituted through his own division, splitting, as to the object in him; this object, this traumatic kernel, is the dimension that we have already named as that of 'death drive', of a traumatic imbalance, a rooting out”.[276] If the subject is hysterical at its core, then this is because both masculine and feminine neurotic subjects undergo the same alienation in language and therefore encounter the same paradoxical structure of language with respect to its inability to totalize or complete itself. In this vein, Žižek goes on to remark that,

    hysteria and obsessional neurosis are not two species of neurosis as a neutral-universal genus; their relation is a dialectical one—it was Freud himself who noted that obsessional neurosis is a kind of “dialectic of hysteria”: hysteria as a fundamental determination of a neurotic position contains two species, obsessional neurosis and itself as its own species.[277]

    At root, at the most fundamental level, the subject is hysterical in its structure such that obsessional neurosis is a subspecies of hysteria.

    The importance of this observation is not to be underestimated. If it is true that subjectivity is at root hysterical, if it is true that obsession is a subspecies of hysteria, and if it is true that hysteria is associated with feminine sexuation and obsessional neurosis is associated with masculine sexuation, we find that we are able to invert a fundamental characterization of woman throughout Western history. Generally we hear that woman is characterized by masquerade, deception, semblance, inconsistency, and so on. However, in light of the foregoing, it would appear that in point of fact it is masculinity that is a charade, a semblance, a masquerade. And indeed, this is clearly visible in Lacan's discourse of the master.

    Lacan associates the discourse of the master with obsessional neurosis and therefore with masculine sexuation. In the position of truth in the lower left-hand corner of this discourse, we witness the barred subject, $, which is nothing other than the hysterical subject. As a consequence, the master-signifier that appears in the position of the agent in the upper left-hand corner must be a charade, a semblance, or a masquerade. What the foregoing entitles us to claim is thus that the feminine side of the graph of sexuation is the structure of truth, whereas the masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the side of semblance. Moreover, we can now say that the totalization that masculine sexuation attempts to effect through the logic of exception is a semblance that strives to erase and cover over the constitutive split of being.

    The second arrow on the feminine side of the graph of sexuation points not to Φ, but rather to S(A). S(A) refers to what Lacan calls “Other jouissance”, which is a form of jouissance outside the symbolic that Lacan associates with the experience of mystics.[278] Because not-all of woman is subject to the phallic function, the feminine sexuated subject, whether male or female, is capable of a jouissance outside the symbolic. Echoing Lacan's thesis that masculine sexuated subjects are “hommosexual”, we could say that in light of Other jouissance, S(A), feminine sexuated subjects are the true “hetero-sexuals”. Here the “hetero” of hetero-sexual should not be read as claiming that women only desire men, but rather that feminine sexuality is structured in such a way that it is capable of desiring alterity or the Other qua Other, regardless of whether the other subject is biologically male or female.

    Having made this detour through Lacan's graphs of sexuation in terms of desire and jouissance, I now turn to the question of how these structures relate to flat ontology. We have already seen that Lacan's graphs of sexuation have no clear or unambiguous link to biological sex or gender. Biologically male subjects can occupy the feminine side, just as biologically feminine subjects can occupy the masculine side. Moreover, we have seen that, as structures, these graphs are able to represent a wide variety of diverse formations. Likewise we have seen that the graphs represent failures of totalization. Finally, we have seen that the masculine side of the graph of sexuation refers to semblance, whereas the feminine side of the graph of sexuation refers to truth.

    Without excluding the reading of Lacan's graphs in terms of sexuation, desire, and jouissance, I propose to read these graphs in terms of ontological discourse and, in particular, in terms of withdrawal. This reading is not designed to have any argumentative or demonstrative force, but rather is designed to outline how the discourse of onticology and object-oriented ontology differ from other ontological discourses. Moreover, this treatment of onticology in terms of the graphs of sexuation will, I hope, allow us to see more clearly what is entailed by a flat ontology. Under this reading, the phallic function or Φ is no longer treated as the phallic function or castration, but rather as the ontological function of withdrawal. In the foregoing, we have already seen how objects are constitutively withdrawn from other objects. This withdrawal takes two forms: on the one hand, objects are withdrawn in the sense that they are always in excess of any of their local manifestations. Objects always have a virtual domain that is never exhausted by any of their local manifestations. On the other hand, objects are withdrawn in the sense that they are never directly perturbed or “irritated” by other objects, but rather always translate perturbations into information according to their own endo-structure, organization, or distinctions. Φ refers to this constitutive withdrawal of objects.

    In this respect, the two sides of Lacan's graphs of sexuation refer to the manner in which different ontological discourses handle or treat this dimension of withdrawal within objects. Rather than referring to these structures as “masculine” and “feminine”, I now refer to the two sides of Lacan's graphs as ontologies of presence and ontologies of withdrawal respectively. Likewise, ontologies of presence can be referred to as ontologies of transcendence, whereas ontologies of withdrawal can be referred to as ontologies of immanence. Ontologies of transcendence refer to ontologies where some being or term stands apart from the world, thereby immunized from withdrawal. Such ontologies are organized around the logic of exception outlined in the foregoing. By contrast, ontologies of immanence refuse any such term, treating all of being as composed of a single flat plane in which all beings are subject to withdrawal. Both forms that ontology takes relate to withdrawal but do so in very different ways.

    On the side of ontologies of transcendence, we encounter the following propositions: ∃x~Φx and ∀xΦx. The first proposition now reads, “there exists an entity such that that entity is not withdrawn”. The second proposition now reads, “for all entities, these entities are withdrawn”. As abstract as this formulation is, it allows us, I believe, to capture the core hypothesis of philosophies of presence or ontotheology. On the one hand, whether we're speaking of the God of ontotheology or the traditional subject of philosophy embodied in Descartes' thought, we encounter a term that is not itself withdrawn, but which is fully present to itself. This is true even of Hume's mind or Kant's structure of experience, where their critiques of metaphysics are premised on some form of consciousness or experience that is present to itself, but where there is no direct access to other objects. Hume, for example, is able to advance his critique of causality and the notion that objects are inhabited by “hidden powers” while arguing that cause and effect relations are associations drawn by mind on the grounds that mind is present to itself, whereas causal relations and powers are withdrawn from mind. Likewise, Kant is able to argue that substance, for example, is a category imposed by mind on the manifold of intuition producing phenomena, while also arguing that things-in-themselves are unknowable on the grounds that mind is present to itself, while objects are withdrawn. A good deal of philosophy influenced by the linguistic turn has this structure as well. Language here is treated as what is present, whereas objects are withdrawn. Finally, in theology, within this framework God is treated as a fully self-present term, while all of God's creatures are treated as finite, imperfect, and incomplete.

    What we find in all variants of the ontologies of presence and transcendence is thus a term that is treated as present or immune to the function of withdrawal. As a consequence of this structure, withdrawal comes to appear as accidental rather than as an essential feature of all objects. Withdrawal is treated as something to be overcome, rather than as a structural feature of being. Here we encounter the function of objet a in ontologies of presence. Objet a is that remainder or leftover within representation that eludes complete presence. However, the premise here is that this remainder is not a constitutive feature of the being itself, but rather is an accidental feature of the relativity of our representations. Put a bit differently, objects are seen as withdrawn for-us and fully present in-themselves. In this regard, withdrawal is a sort of “optical effect” produced as a result of how our representations hook on to the world, rather than as a structural feature of objects themselves. This is true even of skeptical variants of ontologies of presence such as Hume's where the thesis is not that entities are in-themselves withdrawn, but rather where the thesis is that we have no direct access to entities by virtue of how we represent entities.

    This discussion of ontologies of transcendence provides me with the opportunity to distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism, the latter of which is advocated by onticology and object-oriented philosophy. Any confusion of the ontological realism advocated by onticology and object-oriented philosophy and epistemological realism is doomed to be disastrous, as these two forms of realism belong to entirely different registers. Epistemological realism is a variant of the ontologies of presence that strives to bring objects or the world to presence in an adequate representation. The concern of epistemological realism is to represent the world and objects as they are and to sort between true representations, illusions, and superstitions. As such, epistemological realism treats the withdrawal of objects as an accident that can, in principle, be overcome by the proper form of inquiry. It is for this reason that epistemological realisms remain within the domain of ontologies of presence or ontotheology.

    The ontological realism advocated by onticology and object-oriented philosophy, by contrast, is what Graham Harman has called a weird realism.[279] The realism advocated by object-oriented ontology and onticology is not an epistemological thesis, but an ontological thesis. This realism is not a thesis about how we know things, but rather about how things are. On the one hand, onticology refuses to reduce entities to constructions by other entities. To be sure, every entity translates the other entities to which it relates, yet these translations must be rigorously distinguished from the entities that are translated. In this regard, every entity is an irreducible entity in its own right. On the other hand, onticology and object-oriented philosophy are the thesis that entities are constitutively withdrawn from one another. In other words, withdrawal is not an accidental feature of how mind represents entities, but is rather a structural feature of what beings or entities are as such. In this regard, onticology and object-oriented philosophy are able to retain many of the insights of anti-realism, while situating them in ontological terms. Here, following Žižek, onticology and object-oriented philosophy can proclaim that we are healed by the spear that smote us.[280] Withdrawal, far from being an accident of how mind, representation, or language hooks on to being, is instead a constitutive feature of all beings.

    Turning to the ontologies of immanence, we now encounter two very different propositions: ~∃x~Φx and ~∀xΦx. If these propositions characterize an ontology of immanence, then this is because there is no longer a transcendental term that is exempted from withdrawal. Rather, as the first proposition reads, there does not exist an entity that is not subject to withdrawal. If, for example, God exists, God is necessarily withdrawn with respect to itself and God's creatures are withdrawn from God. In short, even God has no privileged or omniscient access to its creatures, nor even to himself. Likewise, subjects are both withdrawn from themselves and other beings are withdrawn from subjects. Withdrawal is thus not an accidental feature of beings, but is rather a constitutive feature of beings. Moreover, withdrawal is not simply a relation between one entity and another, but is the core of each entity itself. In this regard, every entity, up to and including God if God exists, is like a Lacanian divided or barred subject, $, such that, regardless of whether or not it is related to another entity, each entity is withdrawn with respect to itself. Put differently, no entity is fully self-present to itself, but rather every entity necessarily contains blind spots or is opaque to itself. Withdrawal here is the very structure of entities, not an accidental relation of how one entity relates to another entity. In short, such ontologies are ontologies of immanence in that no entity escapes withdrawal either for-itself or in-itself.

    However, while there is no entity that is not subject to withdrawal, the side of the graph pertaining to ontologies of immanence also indicates that not all of entities are withdrawn. This thesis is expressed by the lower proposition on the feminine side of the graph of sexuation. Here something of the entity manifests or presents itself in the world through actualization or local manifestation. In short, withdrawal is never so thorough, never so complete, that local manifestation in one form or another is impossible. Returning to the themes of chapter two, we thus encounter the basic structure of objects in the relation between the top and bottom propositions on the feminine side of Lacan's graph of sexuation. There we saw that the basic structure of objects is to simultaneously be withdrawn and self-othering. No object directly relates to another object and every object is in excess of any of its actualizations, yet objects undergo self-othering through their local manifestations. Something of the object presents itself to the world. However, here we must be careful to note that this presentation or local manifestation is not a presentation to the gaze of a subject, but rather is an event that takes place in the world regardless of whether any entity is present to register this local manifestation.

    The difference between ontologies of transcendence and ontologies of immanence is thus evident. In the case of ontologies of transcendence, withdrawal is an accidental feature of objects. Here, while objects might indeed be withdrawn from us, objects are entirely present to themselves. Moreover, subject, mind, and language are invariably treated as present or immune to withdrawal within these ontologies. In the case of ontologies of immanence, by contrast, withdrawal is not an accident, but a constitutive feature of all objects. Withdrawal constitutes the very structure or being of their being. Here objects are not only withdrawn from themselves such that every object is akin to a Lacanian divided subject, $, but objects are always withdrawn from one another. In this regard, local manifestation is not a presentation of an object that presents “part” of the withdrawn object such that, were there enough local manifestations, the object would be completely presented and withdrawal would be overcome. Rather, local manifestation is always the production or creation of a new quality that actualizes powers of the virtual proper being of the object without rendering virtual proper being itself present. Virtual proper being is necessarily abyssal such that it never comes to presence. In this respect, the agency of virtual proper being can only ever be inferred through the variety of qualities an object produces in its local manifestation. It can never itself be directly encountered for, as we saw in chapter 3, virtual proper being is structured without being qualitative.

    Within discourses organized around ontologies of immanence, the mathemes populating the lower portion of the feminine side of Lacan's graphs of sexuation now take on a new valence. S(A) continues to signify Other jouissance, yet Other jouissance is no longer an ineffable jouissance outside the symbolic, but rather is an attentiveness to what Timothy Morton has called “the strange stranger”. Describing the strange stranger, Morton writes,

    [t]he strange stranger [...] is something or someone whose existence we cannot anticipate. Even when strange strangers showed up, even if they lived with us for a thousand years, we might never know them fully—and we would never know whether we had exhausted our getting-to-know process.[281]

    Indeed, the strange strangers can never be exhausted precisely because withdrawal is a constitutive feature of being. However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the strange strangers are objects other than us. To think the strange strangers in these terms would be to think them in terms of a binary based on identity. On the one hand, there would be the familiar, the heimlich, while on the other hand there would be the strange stranger, the unfamiliar, the unheimlich. The strange stranger would constitute itself as the strange stranger by virtue of its lack of proximity to the heimlich or the familiar. It would be that which is different from. And in being different from, it would be a difference based on identity or the same.

    The concept of the strange stranger, however, is a concept without a binary. Rather the multiple-composition of being consists of strange strangers all the way down. And in this regard, we ourselves are strange strangers not only to other entities, but above all to ourselves insofar as withdrawal is not merely a relation of one entity to another, but also a relation of entities to themselves. Ontological discourses premised on immanence thus relate both to themselves and other objects qua strange strangers. Such discourses welcome the other as a strange stranger and acknowledge the strange stranger within themselves or their constitutive being as self-othering. In this regard, discourses of immanence are not unlike the ethics Lacan ascribes to the analyst. As Lacan remarks,

    [t]he analyst's desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law, where alone it may live. [282]

    Ontologies of immanence strive to relate to themselves and others as strange strangers, in and through their differences. They welcome that difference, remaining open to the possibility of surprise, refusing to reduce strange strangers to fixed identities. In this regard, they practice the difference between local manifestation and virtual proper being. In other words, philosophies of immanence recognize the locality of local manifestation and the openness and excess of virtual proper being, refusing any reduction of the being of beings to their local manifestations. It is this excess that accounts for the strangeness of the strange stranger. Strange strangers always harbor an excess within them that refuses any reduction to local manifestation.

    The difference between how ontologies of transcendence and how ontologies of immanence relate to objects can be illustrated in terms of Lacan's discourse of the master.

    One way of thinking about Lacan's discourses are as little machines that propel a certain discourse forward. Here the product of each discourse (the lower right-hand corner of the discourse) has a paradoxical status in that it is simultaneously something produced by the discourse and something that contributes to the continuation of the discourse. In the discourse of the master, associated with discourses of transcendence, the discourse attempts to identify and define objects, yet there is always a remainder, objet a, that evades identification. Like a Markov chain, this remainder, in its turn, generates a next round of discourse attempting to capture and integrate the remainder. In short, the discourse of the master treats the remainder not as a constitutive feature of all objects, as the mark of their being as strange strangers, but rather as an accident to be surmounted and overcome. In other words, ontologies of transcendence are governed by a telos, even if impossible, of attaining full presence.

    In the case of the graphs of sexuation, we have already seen how masculine sexuation is a structure of semblance whereas feminine sexuation is a structure of truth. Masculine sexuation is a reaction to the fundamental split of being that attempts to surmount this split and cover it over through the enaction of an exception. This carries over into the difference between ontologies of presence and transcendence and ontologies of immanence and withdrawal. However, the seeds of this erasure of withdrawal can already be detected within ontological discourses organized around withdrawal. Within ontological discourses organized around immanence, Φ marks that tendency within ontologies of immanence to erase withdrawal. Φ marks the yearning or desire for full plenitude or actuality that erases the strange stranger. As such, Φ is the seed within immanence upon which the semblance of an exception is constructed. However, as we will recall from the discourse of the master, any exception, S1, veils $, the barred subject, in the position of truth. In other words, S1, whether in the form of a master-signifier, a transcendental subject, God, consciousness or mind is a semblance or masquerade that cloaks and disguises its own withdrawal, parading itself as fully present or actual.

    Lacan's graphs of sexuation allow us to make our first pass at what constitutes a flat ontology. In the first approximation, flat ontology consists in the thesis that there are no transcendent terms, no exceptions, no positions “out-of-field”, with respect to withdrawal. Here being is flat in the precise sense that all beings are characterized by withdrawal and self-othering. In this regard, all beings that populate the multiple-composition of being are strange strangers. The consequence of this is a democracy of strange strangers. Where there is no hegemon that stands above and outside withdrawal as a full actuality, there is only a flat plane composed of strange strangers. As Morton puts it, “[d]emocracy implies coexistence; coexistence implies encounters between strange strangers”.[283]


    1. Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) p. 158.return to text
    2. Ibid., p. 155.return to text
    3. Lacan, Encore, p. 78.return to text
    4. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).return to text
    5. Lacan, Encore, p. 72.return to text
    6. Fink, Lacan to the Letter, p. 161.return to text
    7. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) p. 51.return to text
    8. Lacan, Encore, p. 12.return to text
    9. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Logic of Fantasy (1966–1967): Seminar XIV, trans. Cormac Gallagher (Unpublished) lesson of 16 November 1966.return to text
    10. Ibid.return to text
    11. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Seminar XVII, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007) p. 23.return to text
    12. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 181.return to text
    13. Ibid., p. 191.return to text
    14. Lacan, Encore, p. 74–76.return to text
    15. Brassier et al., “Speculative Realism,” p. 367.return to text
    16. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, chapter 5.return to text
    17. Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 42.return to text
    18. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 276.return to text
    19. Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 81.return to text