Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    6. The Four Theses of Flat Ontology

    The rock was one of those tremendously solid brown, or rather black, rocks which emerge from the sand like something primitive. Rough with crinkled limpet shells and sparsely strewn with locks of dry seaweed, a small boy has to stretch his legs far apart, and indeed to feel rather heroic, before he gets to the top.

    But there, on the very top, is a hollow full of water, with a sandy bottom; with a blob of jelly stuck to the side, and some mussels. A fish darts across. The fringe of yellow-brown seaweed flutters, and out pushes an opal-shelled crab—

    “Oh, a huge crab”, Jacob murmured—

    Virginia Woolf[264]

    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proposes an ontology resonant with Derrida's critique of metaphysics insofar as, in its treatment of beings as withdrawn, it undermines any pretensions to presence within being.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]

    6.2. The World Does Not Exist

    Crucial to the flat ontology proposed by onticology is the thesis that the world does not exist. Alternatively, we could say that the whole does not exist. Here I am deeply indebted to Alain Badiou's Logics of Worlds and Timothy Morton's dark ecology proposed in Ecology Without Nature. In Logics of Worlds, Badiou demonstrates that every concept of the Whole is beset by inconsistency.[284] In Ecology Without Nature, Morton argues that we must abandon the concept of nature as a unified whole or milieu within which beings reside and with respect to which humans and culture constitute an outside such that nature is always “over there”.[285] To my thinking, Morton's conception of being without nature shares a great deal of affinity to Latour's concept of “collectives”. In Pandora's Hope, Latour writes that,

    [u]nlike society, which is an artifact imposed by the modernist settlement, [the concept of collectives] refers to associations of humans and nonhumans. While a division between nature and society renders invisible the political process by which the cosmos is collected in one livable whole, the word “collective” makes this process central.[286]

    Setting aside Latour's reference to politics, the concept of “society” is, according to Latour, based on a distribution or enclosure of beings where nature and society are treated as two already collected wholes that are somehow supposed to relate to one another while remaining entirely distinct. Society is treated as the domain of all that pertains to the human in the form of freedom, agency, meaning, signs, and so on, while nature is treated as the domain of brute causality and mechanism without agency. As a distinction, the concept of society thus encourages us to focus on content and agency, ignoring the role that nonhuman actors or objects play in collectives involving human beings. Within the distinction pertaining to nature, nature is treated as already gathered and unified and we are encouraged to focus on causality and mechanism alone. By contrast, in proposing that we replace the concept of society with the concept of collectives, Latour encourages us to attend to how associations between humans and nonhumans are formed.

    In arguing that nature does not exist, Morton challenges the notion that there is an outside to nature or that nature is something other, outside the domain of society. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, [t]here is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together”.[287] Neither nature nor being is an outside that we must stretch to reach or that is encountered when taking a stroll on Black Forest woodland paths, but rather being an immanent field without outside or other. And here, when Deleuze and Guattari refer to machines, I see no reason not to treat these machines as objects. In short, a collective is an entanglement of human and nonhuman actors or objects. However, here it is important to be cautious, for while there are indeed collectives of human and nonhuman objects or actors, we must not conclude that collectives as such are composed of human and nonhuman actors. Collectives can just as easily be collectives of tardigrades and other objects, collectives of planets and asteroids, and so on without any human involvement whatsoever. In short, what's important about the concept of collectives is that they mark, like the concept of regimes of attraction, entanglements of objects in a network or mesh. If Morton is so eager to abandon the concept of nature within ecological thought, then this is not, I take it, because he wishes to reduce all of being to culture, but because in order to properly think ecologically we must overcome the notion that nature is a closed whole or totality “over there” or outside of human relations.

    If it is so vital for flat ontology to establish that the world does not exist, then this is because the world must not be treated as a milieu in which beings or objects are contained as parts to a whole. In short, if flat ontology is to truly be flat, then it is necessary to establish that the world is not a container within which beings are found. Alternatively, it must be shown that the world is not a super-object composed of all other objects as sub-multiples that form a harmonious whole consisting of beings as complementary and inter-locking parts. As such, following Badiou, there is not world, but rather worlds. The universe, which is really only a manner of speaking, is a pluriverse or multiplicity of universes. Here, then, it is important to observe the role of the definite article in the thesis that “the world does not exist”. Generally when we speak of “the world” we mean this as shorthand for the totality of all that exists. The thesis that the world does not exist is the thesis that no such totality exists nor is it possible for such a totality to be formed. Rather being consists entirely of objects and collectives.

    There are two ways of arguing that the world doesn't exist, the first of which has already been hinted at in chapter five in the context of mereology. Within the domain of formal reasoning, Z-F set theory shows the inconsistency of any attempt to form a totality or whole. Set theory provides a variety of resources for contesting the consistency of any totality or whole, however, here I'll focus on the power set axiom. As we've already seen, the power set axiom allows one to take the set of all subsets of an initial set. Thus, if we have a set composed of elements {a, b, c}, the power set of this set would be {{a}, {b}, {c}, {a, b}, {a, c}, {b, c}, {a, b, c}}. At the level of formal reasoning, if the power set axiom spells the ruin of any whole or totality, then this is because it reveals the existence of a bubbling excess within any whole or collection.

    This is a variation of Cantor's Paradox. Cantor's paradox demonstrates that there can be no greatest cardinal number precisely because the power set of any cardinal number will necessarily be larger than the cardinal number itself. In a stunning inversion of the ancient thesis that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the power set axiom reveals, to the contrary, that the parts are always greater than the whole. As I argued in the last chapter, from a certain perspective each object is a crowd, containing within itself a plurality of other autonomous objects that very likely “know” nothing of the object of which they are parts. Any whole that does manage to establish itself is, as Deleuze has put it, a “One or Whole so special that it results from the parts without altering the fragmentation or disparity of those parts, and, like the dragons of Balbec or Vinteuil's phrase, is itself valid as a part alongside others, adjacent to others”.[288] What the power set reveals is the bubbling pluralism of “the” world beneath any unity or totality. Any totality or whole, in its turn, is itself an object or One alongside all sorts of other ones.

    At the formal level, the real force of the power set axiom lies in the manner in which it reveals the possibility of a multiplicity of relations and objects within any collective. It will be recalled that any exo-relation between objects is potentially itself also an object. If we ask the strange question, “when is an object?” we can answer this question with the hypothesis that an object is when exo-relations among other objects manage to attain operational closure such that their aggregate or multiple-composition becomes capable of encountering perturbations as information in terms of their own endo-consistency. On the one hand, the power set axiom reveals the possibility of a plurality of other objects within any collective. On the other hand, the power set axiom discloses the possibility of alternative exo-relations among objects, not present in the whole from which the subsets are drawn. Finally, the power set axiom reveals the possibility of withdrawing objects from their relations to collectives so that they might function as autonomous actors, either entering into other collectives, subsystems, or going it alone within the order of being.

    If, from the standpoint of formal reasoning, the Whole is not, the One is not, or the world does not exist, then this is precisely because these subsets, these other possible objects and relations populating the power set of the Whole or alleged One are neither counted nor countable within the Whole or One. In short, every Whole or One contains an excess within it that is not itself treated as a part of the Whole or One. Put differently, such subsets are included in the set from which they are drawn, without belonging to it. Yet it is precisely this absence of belonging or membership that spells the ruin of the Whole, One, or World.

    However, while the formal reasoning of set theory provides us the resources for thinking the nonexistence of the world, it does not establish the nonexistence of the world. Confronted with the formal demonstration of excess bubbling within any Whole or totality, one can easily respond by pointing out that, as provocative as these formal demonstrations are, the concept of World pertains not to what is possible, but to what actually exists. In this regard, the demonstration that any collection could contain other objects and relations does not establish that the World does contain other objects and relations not counted within that totality. Since the concept of World pertains to those relations and objects that do actually exist, the formal demonstration of the inexistence of the World has no purchase on the thesis that the World exists.

    If it is to be established that the World does not exist, then what is required is not a demonstration of the possibility of the ruin of any Whole, but rather the demonstration that in fact the World does not exist. The resources for this second argument have already been developed in my discussion of operational closure in chapter four. There we saw that every object is operationally closed such that it constitutes its own system/environment distinction. The paradox of this distinction is that, while it is a distinction between system and environment, the distinction itself falls on one side of what it distinguishes: the system. In short, the environment/system distinction refers not to two present-at-hand entities, systems and environments, but is rather constituted by systems themselves. This distinction, in its turn, constitutes the entity's openness to its environment, and that openness is always of a selective nature. However, here we must be careful to distinguish between the environment of a system and systems in the environment of a system. While an object does indeed constitute its environment in the sense of constituting those sorts of perturbations to which it is open, objects do not constitute other objects or systems in their environment. At best, working on the premise that an object is open to some other systems in its environment, an object translates perturbations it receives from these other objects.

    Two points follow from these observations. First, insofar as environment is constituted by the object “drawing” the distinction between system and environment, it cannot be said that environments are a present-at-hand milieu in which objects exist. As we saw in chapter five in connection with our discussion of developmental systems theory, objects construct their environment even as they are often buffeted by perturbations from systems in their environment. Second, and in a closely related vein, because objects are only selectively open to their environments, it follows that objects are not open to all systems in their environment. The tardigrade does not belong to the environment of a tree, nor does the tree belong to the environment of a tardigrade. Likewise, my three-year-old daughter, qua social subject, does not belong to the environment of her toy box. No matter how much my daughter yells at the lid of her toy box when it accidentally falls down upon her head—and she does, indeed, yell and curse, in her own way, the toy box—the toy box does not respond or bow to her will. While she might address her toy box as “little brother” for reasons that thoroughly baffle me, the toy box is indifferent to her designations and scoldings. One might object that certainly the acoustic resonances of her scolding voice perturb the toy box and such an objection would not be mistaken. However, the manner in which the vibrations of this tiny voice affect the polished oak wood of the toy chest do not entail that that oaken toy box transforms these perturbations into information qua voice. Sadly, for my daughter, that toy box is as dense as wood.

    With Leibniz, perhaps, we can say that there are as many worlds as there are objects. What we cannot say, however, is that the World forms any sort of organic unity or whole in which all objects interrelate with one another as a compossible system. There is no world-system precisely because there is no World. On the one hand, contrary to Whitehead, it simply isn't the case that every entity relates to every other entity. Many entities fall completely outside local collectives such that they are both entirely oblivious to these collectives and such that these collectives are entirely oblivious to them. Put differently, there are a number of instances in which there is absolutely no resonance between entities. Quite literally, they belong to entirely different universes. As in the case of neutrinos that are unable to relate to most other particles due to their neutral charge, scientists have to painstakingly create apparatuses capable of bringing these entities into relation with the entities of our world. On the other hand, even in those instances where entities do relate, each entity relates to other entities on its own terms as a function of the distinctions it draws and its own peculiar organization. As a consequence, there is no whole or totality that can be formed out of the entities that populate the world.

    The thesis that the World forms an organic totality where no such totality exists surreptitiously treats the collective as already formed, as already being there, without attending to any of the work and translations required for collectives to come into being. It treats collectives as accomplished, while ignoring the arduous work required for any collective to form itself. As such, it ignores the antagonisms that populate being as well as the lack of resonance between all sorts of objects. While the idea of the World as an organic and harmonious unity might prove comforting and reassuring, providing us with the sense that we belong to a Whole in which each entity has its proper place, such a conception of being does a profound injustice to the entities that populate the multiple-composition of being and ends up recapitulating the discourse of the master and the logic of ontologies of transcendence. Put differently, concepts of World as an organic Whole or totality foreclose the strange stranger. Each entity, the story runs, has its proper place within the organic totality and is defined by its relation to all others. What is thereby abolished is the non-relation of each and every relation and the recognition of that which is entirely non-relational with respect to any particular collective or entity.

    If conceptualizations of the World premised on the organic unity of the Whole recapitulate the logic of the discourse of the master and ontologies of transcendence, then this is because such discourses inevitably must have recourse to some entity that perturbs the “natural” order, preventing it from existing harmoniously as ontologies of the World dictate. It is always Man, technology, the foreigner and so on that perturbs the “natural” order. In other words, within the conception of Nature as an organic whole or totality, there is always recourse to some uncanny agency generating disharmony that upsets the harmonic natural order. Such conceptions of being necessarily have recourse to objet a as a disruptive agency that upsets the “natural” order. Moreover, this disruptive agency, this trickster, to use Lévi-Strauss's memorable term, is treated as an accident that could return the natural order to harmony were it eradicated. As such, discourses about the existence of the World and the intrinsic harmony of nature end up repeating the friend/enemy logic analyzed so attentively by Schmitt.

    Yet it is not simply that the idea of the World as an organic and harmonic Whole producing objet a as a remainder that is problematic. Rather, in declaring that the World exists, that the world forms an organic Whole, all objects are subordinated to the World as parts of the Whole. As such, their only value and being arises from what they contribute to the World or the Whole as elements in this massive machine that swallows them all up in a total system in which they're integrated. The consequence here is that the being of the part is completely effaced, such that the part becomes merely a functional element providing perturbations that the Whole can draw on in producing information in its own ongoing autopoiesis. Objects themselves therefore have no autonomy apart from the Whole and simply are what they are as elements of the Whole. Gaia, it turns out, is either a fascist or a totalitarian.

    The point here is not that collectives can't be pushed into chaotic basins of attraction that spell their destruction, or, at least, bifurcation, down the road, but rather that these strange strangers are not, to put it in Aristotelian/Scholastic terms, accidents. Put more precisely, these strange strangers are not outside of worlds, but rather are themselves elements of worlds. The Luddite thesis that Man, technology, and media are unnatural imposters that unbalance the natural order of the World is premised on the existence of a World that never existed to begin with. They treat as ontological what is, in reality, a covert normative judgment. And again, here the point is not that normative judgments shouldn't be made, but that these judgments are made from the standpoint of a particular system or object and do not themselves determine what is or is not. But more fundamentally, from the standpoint of worlds, the harmonic has never existed. It has never been the case that it is merely Man, Technology, or Media that perturbs Nature. The odds are that at this very moment, somewhere in the universe or the multiverse, there is a massive black hole devouring a solar system with a rich and complex ecosystem supporting sentient and intelligent life. The Black Plague swept across Europe and Asia for decades and centuries, wiping out massive populations of humans and other creatures. Precambrian organisms caused the extinction of many of their species by saturating their environment with oxygen, diluting the carbon dioxide they needed to thrive. The dinosaurs very likely became extinct as a result of an asteroid. It is worlds themselves that are out of kilter and lacking in harmony. While we should make the case for certain forms of equilibrium, balance, or harmony, we should refuse to ontologize such claims, treating them as reflective of a “Goddess Earth”, and be upfront in the declaration that these are normative judgments made from the standpoint of a particular object or system. From the standpoint of the bubonic plague, sickness is merely a convenient way of replicating itself. In other words, it is not sickness at all.

    The thesis that the world does not exist is crucial to flat ontology so as to avoid surreptitiously treating as collected that which is not collected. What the inexistence of the world teaches is that worlds are a work, that meshes must be produced, and that they cannot be said to exist in advance. There is, as Graham Harman has so aptly, beautifully, and poetically put it in Guerrilla Metaphysics, a “carpentry” of being. That is to say, collectives must be built by the objects that deign to enter into structural couplings with one another. In this regard, the inexistence of the world draws our attention to what Latour has called the “sociology of associations” as opposed to the “sociology of the social”.[289] It seems that if he could, Latour would prefer to abandon the term “sociology” altogether given the manner in which it is thoroughly contaminated by what he calls “the modernist constitution”, where nature and society are treated as two entirely distinct domains. Yet if, contends Latour, the term “sociology” should be retained then it ought to be retained not as a theory of that peculiar domain of what is unique to the human, but rather as that domain that pertains to associations, relations, or what Harman calls “the carpentry of being”. Where the sociology of the social appeals to society, social forces, power, meaning, language, and a host of other nefarious human-related entities to explain why people behave as they do, the sociology of associations instead draws attention to how relations are forged in the creation of assemblages.

    The profound difference embodied in Latour's sociology of associations is not only that it draws attention to relations between humans and nonhumans and how these relations are forged and what impact they have, but that we can imagine a sociology of associations that does not involve humans at all. This would not simply be a matter of analyzing bee, ant, and gorilla societies after the fashion of Jane Goodall, but would involve the investigation of collectives involving no sentient beings whatsoever. For example, the sociologist of associations might investigate the impact various storms and winds have on strata and how they manage to maintain such remarkable chaotic consistency. In this regard, the molecular biologist and the chemist are sociologists of association, for they investigate how particular collectives are forged among particular actors. It just happens that these collectives are composed not of humans or animals, but of atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and heavy metals. What is, above all, important to remember for the purposes of flat ontology is not simply that the World does not exist, but rather that collectives must be forged. Moreover, it must be remembered that not all entities relate to all other entities and that like the floating city of George Lucas's Empire Strikes Back, there are collectives that are unassociated with other collectives and that know nothing of other collectives. While the thesis that the World does not exist or that being does not form an organic harmonious totality might appear to be a grim hypothesis, denying us our oneness and unity with everything else, this thesis also embodies the freedom and hope of collectives; for it entails that we can set about the arduous work of building new collectives and welcoming unheard of strange strangers, building what are as of yet unheard of collectives. In other words, the theory that the Whole and World do not exist both promises to free us from a tyrannical collective gone mad and offers the possibility of building other collectives. Rather than critique, which is, in its own way and from its own point of view indispensable, the thesis that the world does not exist offers us the activity of composition.

    6.3. Being is Flat

    The foregoing chapters and sections lead to the conclusion that being is flat. The flatness of being is embodied in two fundamental claims. First, in light of our exploration of the interior of objects in chapter four, it becomes clear that ontologically the bland human-world gap or relationship possesses no metaphysical priority. As Harman puts it, “object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other”.[290] Second, onticology and object-oriented philosophy establish what might be called a heteroverse or pluriverse, where entities at all levels of scale, whether natural or cultural, physical or artificial, material or semiotic are on equal ontological footing. As Ian Bogost puts it, “all beings equally exist, yet they do not exist equally”.[291] Onticology and object-oriented philosophy therefore democratizes being, asserting not one primary gap between subjects and objects, humans and world, mind and reality, but rather an infinity of gaps or vacuums between objects regardless of whether humans are involved. Likewise, onticology and object-oriented philosophy democratize being by defending a plurality of types of objects, ranging from the semiotic to the natural. Rather than treating one type of object such as quantum particles as the really real upon which all else is grounded and to which all else ultimately reduces, flat ontology advocates a pluralism of types of objects at all levels of scale that are irreducible to one another. In other words, objects of different types and at different levels of scale are what Aristotle referred to as genuine primary substances.

    As Harman has compellingly argued, philosophy, for the last two hundred or so years, has been obsessed with a single gap between the human and the world, treating this gap as metaphysically privileged or special, unlike all other relations with objects. Within the framework of onticology and object-oriented philosophy, however, the human-object gap possesses no privileged status, but is one among many gaps populating a heteroverse. As Harman remarks,

    [w]hen the things withdraw from presence into their dark subterranean reality, they distance themselves not only from human beings, but from each other as well. If the human perception of a house or tree is forever haunted by some hidden surplus in the things that never become present, the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops.[292]

    From this Harman concludes that, “contrary to the dominant assumption of philosophy since Kant, the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and world, but between objects and relations”.[293] Far from the gap between humans and objects constituting a unique form of relation, withdrawal is a perfectly ubiquitous relation within being characteristic of all relations between objects. All objects are strange strangers with respect to one another regardless of whether or not humans are involved in these relations. Moreover, all objects are strange strangers with respect to themselves.

    Within the framework of onticology, the ubiquity of withdrawal characteristic of all objects is theorized in terms of the operational closure of objects analyzed in chapter four and the split within objects between virtual proper being and local manifestation analyzed in chapter three. With respect to the operational closure of objects, the relation between objects whether human, social, biological, or inanimate is a non-relation between objects in which objects never directly touch or encounter one another. Like Leibniz's windowless monads, each object is a discrete substance or unit of its own, withdrawn from all other objects without any direct relation or contact. Objects never directly encounter one another, but rather only relate to one another as translations or information. And information is never something transmitted or exchanged by objects, but rather is constituted by each object as a function of its own internal organization and distinctions.

    With respect to the split nature of objects embodied in the split between virtual proper being and local manifestation, a similar ubiquity of withdrawal is encountered. The virtual proper being of objects is abyssal and subterranean, such that it itself never comes to presence. Virtual proper being is structured without being qualitative and refers to that domain of powers and attractors presiding over the actualization of qualities or local manifestations. Insofar as virtual proper being is thoroughly withdrawn and never itself becomes present, it can only be inferred through the actual. It is only through tracking local manifestations and their variations that we get any sense of the dark volcanic powers harbored within objects. In other words, through second-order observation or the observation of how an object relates to the world in its non-relation, we form a hypothetical diagram of objects or a map of their attractors or powers. However, insofar as all local manifestations create something new in the form of qualities, this diagram can only ever be partial, hypothetical, and incomplete for, as Spinoza so nicely put it, we don't ever completely know what objects can do.

    Nor is the withdrawal of objects ever merely a withdrawal of objects with respect to one another. Withdrawal is a form of non-relation so thorough that objects aren't simply withdrawn from one another, but are withdrawn even from themselves. As we have seen, all objects are akin to Lacanian divided subjects, $. On the one hand, no object ever actualizes the subterranean volcanic core with which its virtual proper being is haunted. This virtual domain is like a reserve or excess that never comes to presence. It is not simply that objects are, in themselves, fully actual and only withdrawn for other objects relating to them, but rather that objects are withdrawn in themselves. On the other hand, the distinctions or organization by which objects produce information for themselves are themselves withdrawn or invisible to the object that deploys them. As we have seen, every distinction necessarily contains two blind spots. Distinctions are blind to the unmarked space produced as a result of the distinction. As Luhmann puts it, objects can only see what they can see and cannot see what they cannot see. Moreover, they do not see that they do not see this. Yet in addition to this, objects are blind to their own operative distinctions. Distinctions can only be observed or used, but never observed and used. In making indications or interacting with other objects, the distinctions that render these indications possible become thoroughly invisible.

    Insofar as withdrawal is ubiquitous, there is no reason to treat the human-object relation as metaphysically privileged. The human-object relation is not a special relation, not a unique relation, but a subset of a far more pervasive ontological truth that pertains to objects of all types. The point here is not that we should exclude inquiry into human/object relations or social/object relations, but rather that these analyses are analyses for regional ontology, for a particular domain of being, not privileged grounds of ontology as such. The issue here is thus very subtle. It is not a question of excluding the human and the social, but of decentering them from the place of ontological privilege they currently enjoy within contemporary philosophy and theory. Nor does this entail that all objects relate to other objects in exactly the same way. There are as many forms of translation as there are types of objects. Indeed, there are as many forms of translation as there are objects. Moreover, new forms of translation come into being all the time with the emergence of new objects and with the development of objects as analyzed in chapters four and five.

    What onticology and, I believe, object-oriented philosophy propose is therefore a subtle shift in the distinctions governing the marked space of what philosophy and theory indicates. Far from seeking to exclude or eradicate phenomenology and bodies of cultural theory in the name of, for example, a naturalism or a scientistic materialism, object-oriented ontology aims to expand what can be indicated within the domain of philosophy and theory. Onticology and object-oriented philosophy thus find themselves in the position of receiving opposite and opposed objections from all sides. From the culturalists, we receive criticisms declaring that we are rejecting the human, the subject, meaning, signs, and the social. From the naturalists, we are accused of wooly-headed thinking that treats social entities, semiotic entities, texts, films, fictions and so on as real and autonomous entities within being.

    In both cases, however, the rejoinder of object-oriented ontology is the same. What is objected to with respect to the culturalists is not the thesis that humans and social entities translate other entities in their own way, nor the thesis that humans and social entities are not genuine entities, but rather the Malkovichism that arises from privileging the human/world or social/world gap. As we saw in 6.1, Malkovichism consists in treating all other objects as blank screens upon which humans project their meanings, intentions, signs, and signifiers. Malkovich, like Narcissus, sees only himself in other objects, denying objects their own autonomy and dignity. The trick of cultural analysis thus lies in demonstrating that what we take to be the object is rather our own alienated image. What object-oriented ontology opposes is not the thesis that humans and society translate other objects, nor the thesis that humans and societies only encounter objects in “distorted” form in their own interior, but rather the culturalist tendency to reduce objects to alienated human reflections. To be sure we can, and should, investigate the manner in which humans and societies translate objects. Put in more technical terms, we should engage in reflexive second-order observations of our own distinctions and how they organize our experience of the world. Yet having made this concession, we must also redraw our distinctions in such a way as to make room for nonhuman objects as autonomous actors in their own right, such that these objects are not treated as merely passive screens for human projections and such that they are treated as perturbing the world in their own way. In other words, the point is to expand the domain of what can be investigated, not to limit it. However, this requires placing objects in the marked space of our distinctions and treating humans and societies as entities among other entities.

    From the naturalists, by contrast, object-oriented ontologists are accused of treating a variety of psychic and cultural entities as real entities, ignoring the truth that the only real reality is the material and physical world. Put crudely, the naturalist accuses object-oriented ontology of treating as real what is merely an illusion or derivative. To the ears of the naturalist, object-oriented ontology thus looks like a form of arch-culturalism insofar as it treats entities like nations, groups, chairs, films, and so on as genuinely real entities. To make matters worse, the naturalist is appalled by the object-oriented thesis that these entities are irreducible to the physical, material, or natural domain. This ends up getting translated into the thesis that object-oriented ontology rejects neurology, biology, chemistry, physics and a host of other “hard sciences”.

    However, once again, the point is the same. The aim is not to exclude or reject the entities explored by the “hard sciences”, but to refuse a hierarchical conception of being where these entities are treated as the “really real” beings and all the others are treated as derivative illusions or mere effects. Here, again, the aim is not to limit inquiry, but to expand the domain of what can be investigated. With the naturalists, object-oriented ontology agrees that the culturalists or social constructivists have illicitly reduced nonhuman beings to cultural constructs. With the social constructivists or culturalists, however, object-oriented ontology refuses to treat social and cultural entities as mere effects of the material and physical. Rather, object-oriented ontology argues that these entities are genuinely real entities in their own right. What object-oriented ontology thus objects to is the reductivism of many naturalist approaches.

    However here we must proceed with care. Object-oriented ontology can readily agree that Supreme Court justices are impossible without brains, even if often it appears that they don't use their brains. The point is that brains are one thing and Supreme Court justices are another thing. Being a Supreme Court justice is irreducible to being a brain. Here we encounter considerations of both mereology and operational closure. In a rather bizarre formulation, we can ask ourselves whether Antonin Scalia is a Supreme Court justice. Initially the answer would appear to be an obvious yes, unless, somehow, Scalia is an imposter. However, within the framework of onticology, matters are not so simple. Supreme Court justices are elements within a particular object, namely, the United States. Like all other objects, this object is operationally closed, relating only to itself. As such, Scalia, the individual psychic system, belongs not to that object that contains Justice Scalia as an element, but rather to the environment of that object. Put differently, Scalia the individual psychic system belongs to the environment of Justice Scalia the element within a particular larger scale object. Moreover, insofar as the individual psychic system Scalia is itself an operationally closed object, it follows that Scalia's brain belongs to the environment of Scalia the individual psychic system. Insofar as Scalia's brain, such as it is, belongs to the environment of the individual psychic system Scalia, and insofar as Scalia belongs to the environment of that object that contains Justice Scalia as a member, it follows that Scalia's brain can only perturb Scalia the individual psychic system, and that Scalia the psychic system can only perturb the social-system or object that contains Justice Scalia as an element. In other words, each of these objects is withdrawn from the other such that each operates in terms of its own operational closure translating perturbations from one another into information.

    In this regard, Scalia's brain has little to tell us about Justice Scalia. Put differently, Justice Scalia is irreducible to the individual psychic system Scalia, and the individual psychic system Scalia is irreducible to Scalia's brain. Instead, what we get is something akin to a high voltage Jacob's Ladder where sparks leap from non-communicating object to non-communicating object with each of these objects being irreducible to one another. At this point, I imagine the naturalist protesting that I'm proposing a thoroughly obscurantist universe populated by all sorts of occult substances like so many ghosts. Am I not here suggesting that Scalia is an immaterial soul and, were it not problematic enough to posit immaterial souls for individuals, have I not now multiplied the sorts of souls that exist through the postulation of even stranger objects like groups, societies, roles, and so on? Is not Ockham spinning in his grave in response to my lack of ontological parsimony?

    However, I have already developed the resources for responding to this criticism in section 5.3 where I addressed the ontology of structure. While emergent entities are indeed irreducible to smaller scale entities, this does not entail that they violate any laws of physics or material reality. As we saw in 5.3, the defining feature of structure lies in the manner in which relations among elements making up the endo-structure of an entity or system are constrained. Nothing about these constraints violates the laws of physics or the findings of neurology, however the laws of physics and the findings of neurology cannot themselves account for why relations among elements are constrained or structured in this particular way. It is this nature of constraints or structures that accounts for the irreducibility of larger-scale objects. In a fine discussion of causality and emergence, Protevi writes,

    [t]he concept of emergence entails reciprocal or circular causality. Upward causality is the emergence of systematic focused capacities (the parts of a system function in such a way as to provide for capacities of the system that the individual parts do not possess), and downward causality is the constraint on the behavior of component parts that enables systematic-capacities (the whole exerts an influence on the parts that now have a reduced field of action).[294]

    With emergence, higher scale objects take on a life of their own that can only be accounted for in terms of their own organization. Such objects begin to constitute their own elements through their own elements. Here upward causality refers to the manner in which elements of the object produce the object, whereas downward causality refers to the manner in which the object constrains and structures its elements. What we get here is a system-specific causality, unique to each object, that while dependent on lower-scale objects is not accounted for by these objects.

    With these observations, we now encounter the heteroverse characteristic of the flat ontology advocated by onticology and object-oriented ontology. Rather than one type of object, such as subatomic particles, that constitutes the really real, we instead get a heteroverse of different types of autonomous and irreducible objects ranging from quarks to tardigrades to ecosystems, groups, institutions, societies, humans, burritos and so on. An awl is no less real than a cane toad by virtue of being fabricated by humans, nor is an institution or group any less real than an awl by virtue of being immaterial. It might be argued that an awl is only an awl so long as it exists within the framework of society. Perhaps this is true, but how is this any different from the other regimes of attraction we explore in 5.1 where we saw that the particular form a local manifestation takes is in part dependent on structural couplings and regimes of attraction? When a sadistic scientist places a cane toad within a glass box without oxygen, that cane toad very quickly loses the capacity to locally manifest qualities pertaining to life. When the awl is detached from society, it is no longer able to locally manifest powers of punching holes in wood or leather. In these instances, what has been abolished is not the entity itself, but rather the ability of the entity to locally manifest itself in a particular way. Of course, in the case of the frog, entropy begins to set in rather quickly. Then again, it appears that this particular limitation on local manifestations arising from the absence of particular structural couplings is not necessarily irreversible in that it appears there are many instances where frogs can be brought back to life.

    With this heteroverse of varied objects, we begin to see just how much the concept of society and the concept of collectives discussed in 6.2 differ from one another. The distinctions organizing the concept of society draw attention to subjectivity, signs, meanings, narratives, texts, discourses, power, social forces and so on. By contrast, the concept of collectives draws our attention to a variety of very different actors, human and nonhuman, perturbing and translating each other in particular ways within networks or assemblages. No doubt, it is something like this that Guattari was after in Chaosmosis. As Guattari writes,

    [s]hould we keep the semiotic productions of the mass media, informatics, telematics and robotics separate from psychological subjectivity? I don't think so. Just as social machines can be grouped under the general title of Collective Equipment, technological machines of information and communication operate at the heart of human subjectivity, not only within its memory and intelligence, but within its sensibility, affects and unconscious fantasms. Recognition of these machinic dimensions of subjectivation leads us to insist, in our attempt at redefinition, on the heterogeneity of the components leading to the production of subjectivity. Thus one finds in it: 1. Signifying semiological components which appear in the family, education, the environment, religion, art, sport [...]. 2. Elements constructed by the media industry, the cinema, etc., 3. A-signifying semiological dimensions that trigger informational sign machines, and that function in parallel or independent of the fact that they produce and convey significations and denotations, and thus escape from strictly linguistic axiomatics.[295]

    Guattari appears to envision the analysis of collectives where a variety of different actors or objects ranging from subjects to signs to technologies and groups and institutions interact with one another in a highly complex fashion. To Guattari's list, of course, we could add the presence or absence of roads, power lines, internet connections, weather patterns, cane toads, ocean-going ships and canoes, H1N1 viruses and a host of other objects. Guattari's ontology is flat in the precise sense that all of these entities are full-blown actors rather than mere screens for human signs and intentions. And, of course, collectives need not involve signs or humans at all, but can be purely inhuman as in the case of the atmosphere of Saturn.

    At this point, it is not unusual to hear humanist correlationists cry foul, accusing object-oriented ontologists of technological and environmental determinism. In my view, this is an unfair criticism. Somehow pointing out that it is impossible to fry eggs without a frying pan or some similar cooking surface becomes equivalent to the thesis that frying pans determine people to fry eggs. Somehow pointing out how the inland remoteness of China's abundant coal reserves played a role in China not kicking off the industrial revolution is transformed into the claim that this remoteness determined the form that Chinese culture took. In this regard, any qualification of human freedom, any evocation of actors other than meaning, narratives, signifiers, and discourses is responded to with incredulity at the suggestion that humans are merely among other beings rather than at the center of beings such that nonhuman beings are merely their screen, passive things upon which they impose form through their intentions and techniques, and where the world is merely our own alienated reflection. Such is the height of Malkovichism.

    Faced with decades of content-based cultural criticism that implicitly, at least, adheres to Marx's formula that the aim of philosophy is not to represent the world, but rather to change it, it is peculiar that such theory doesn't seem to recognize that such cultural critiques seem to be fairly unsuccessful in producing their desired change. Here one would think that social and political theorists would become aware that this absence of change suggests that perhaps meanings, signifiers, signs, narratives, and discourses are not the entire story. One would think that in addition to these semiotic actors that play a role in collectives of humans and nonhumans, greater attention would be directed at the role of nonhuman actors in human collectives and the role they play in constraining the possibilities of existence. Such an attentiveness to these nonhuman actors would provide us with the resources for thinking strategies of composition that might push collectives into new basins of attraction. Whether or not a village has a well, a city has roads that provide access to other cities, and whether people have alternative forms of occupation and transportation can play a dramatic role in the form collectives take. However, in much of contemporary cultural theory, these sorts of actors are almost entirely invisible because the marked space of theory revolves around the semiotic, placing nonhuman actors in the unmarked space of thought and social engagement.

    However, setting aside these criticisms, the more basic ontological point is that there can be no question of technological or environmental determinism precisely because objects cannot be determined by other objects. Insofar as all objects are withdrawn from one another, insofar as objects only relate to their environment selectively and through their own distinctions or organization, there can be no question of objects determining one another. This holds for humans as well. The most one object can do to another is perturb it, and even this is not always the case as objects are only selectively related to their environment such that there are many things towards which they are completely blind. In this regard, the manner in which one object responds to another always embodies a high degree of creativity.

    In many respects, all of onticology culminates in the four theses of flat ontology. It is flat ontology that constitutes the democracy of objects. However, this democracy of objects does not amount to the thesis that all objects contribute equally to all other objects or to all collectives. Clearly tardigrades contribute little or nothing to collectives involving human beings. Here, then, I return to Ian Bogost's thesis that all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally. Entities perturb other objects more and less. Entities play greater and smaller roles in various collectives. Some entities, no doubt, do not perturb other objects at all, and as we saw in the case of Roy Bhasker in the first chapter, other objects are dormant. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all objects contribute equally, but that all objects equally exist. In its ontological egalitarianism, what flat ontology thus refuses is the erasure of any object as the mere construction of another object.


    1. Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (New York: Hartcourt Brace & Company, 1992) p. 9.return to text
    2. Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) p. 158.return to text
    3. Ibid., p. 155.return to text
    4. Lacan, Encore, p. 78.return to text
    5. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).return to text
    6. Lacan, Encore, p. 72.return to text
    7. Fink, Lacan to the Letter, p. 161.return to text
    8. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) p. 51.return to text
    9. Lacan, Encore, p. 12.return to text
    10. 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
    11. Ibid.return to text
    12. 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
    13. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 181.return to text
    14. Ibid., p. 191.return to text
    15. Lacan, Encore, p. 74–76.return to text
    16. Brassier et al., “Speculative Realism,” p. 367.return to text
    17. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, chapter 5.return to text
    18. Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 42.return to text
    19. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 276.return to text
    20. Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 81.return to text
    21. Badiou, Logics of Worlds, pp. 109–12.return to text
    22. Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, pp. 181–197.return to text
    23. Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) p. 304.return to text
    24. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) p. 2.return to text
    25. Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs: The Complete Text, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) pp. 164–165.return to text
    26. Latour, Reassembling the Social, pp. 8–9.return to text
    27. Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 1.return to text
    28. Ian Bogost, “Materialisms: The Stuff of Things is Many”, at Ian Bogost—Video Game Theory, Criticism, Design, February 21, 2010, http://www.bogost.com/blog/materialisms.shtml.return to text
    29. Harman, Tool-Being, p. 2.return to text
    30. Ibid.return to text
    31. John Protevi, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) p. 9.return to text
    32. Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) p. 4.return to text