[68호] Three Theses of The Democracy of Objects / 레비 R. 브라이언트 『객체들의 민주주의』 한국어판 출간 기념 강연 원고

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Three Theses of The Democracy of Objects


Levi R. Bryant
Collin College
Professor of Philosophy
Galmuri Book Launch
April 24, 2021


I would like to begin by thanking Galmuri press for translating The Democracy of Objects and for making this event possible. I am humbled and honored by the work you have put into this, and excited to see how the book will be received in Korea.


To start, I would like emphasize that, despite it’s title, The Democracy of Objects is a work of ontology, not a work of political theory. Ontology asks, among other things, the question of what is and is not, not the question of what ought to be or ought not to be, as political philosophy and ethics do. In the years since The Democracy of Objects was first published, I have noticed that many people have a curious tendency to draw normative conclusions from ontological claims or the claim that something is. For example, some take the claim that rocks and aardvarks are as the claim that rocks and aardvarks are as valuable or as important as persons. From this they then conclude that I am denigrating the dignity of human beings and suggested that we should treat all objects as equal in worth to all others. I am not sure how people arrive at such a conclusion, but this is certainly not the claim that I am making. Again, this book is a work of ontology, a work about what is and the nature of what is, not a book about worth, normativity, politics, or ethics.


The Democracy of Objects was written in the context of a situation in Continental philosophy dominated by what Quentin Meillassoux has called “correlationism” and which Graham Harman has referred to as philosophies of access. Correlationism is that orientation of thought that holds we can only ever speak and think the relation between subject and object, never either of these terms considered apart. From a correlationist perspective, to speak of an object is also always to speak of the subject that regards that object. In other words, for the correlationist the object is always already a relation to the subject that regards it. The thought of an object apart from any relation to the subject is, according to the correlationist, is impossible. To be is to be related to the subject.


Correlationism takes many forms, though they all share the common feature of tending towards idealism or the thesis that we cannot speak of beings as they are apart from subject, but only as they are for subjects. In this regard, correlationism necessarily tends towards idealism and forms of social constructivism, inimical to any form of realism. Thus, for example, among phenomenologists discussion of the object become discussions of how sense-bestowing conscious constitute the thing and give it its meaning. From this phenomenological perspective-- an orientation of thought from which I have learned a great deal and that I continue to find valuable –what things might be in and for themselves is unthinkable. Rather, we can only speak of things as they are in and for us. Likewise, within the framework of the linguistic turn exemplified by thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lacan, objects are treated as signifying texts, where we are to decipher the signifying meanings through which they are socially constructed. Lacan will argue that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”, underlining the way in which the linguistic categories we throw over being constitute the being of beings. In “The Agency of the Letter”, he will give the example of men’s and women’s restrooms, arguing that it is nothing about these restrooms themselves that make one a ladies room and another a men’s room, but rather it is the signifier-- men’s/woman’s –that bestows this being or status. What these restrooms themselves might be apart from language, Lacan will contend, is something we can never know because our encounter with any being is always filtered through the grid or lattice of language that structures how we apprehend beings. Such is correlationism.


When I look back at The Democracy of Objects ten years later, the first thesis that continues to speak to me after all of this time is that of a subjectless object. We must endeavor, as much as possible, to think objects independent of and apart from the subject. Before expanding on this thesis, I want to emphasize that my suggestion here is not that we should cease practicing phenomenology or engaging in semiotic analyses objects. I seldom advocate the narrowing of theoretical options. What interests me is expanding philosophical options. I have learned a great deal from phenomenology. I have learned a great deal from Lacan, semiotics, semiology, and various forms of social constructivism. I continue to practice these techniques myself.


I advocate the claim that we see the world through concepts. Just as we cannot exceed the speed of light, our thought cannot go faster than our concepts. One cannot discern that a slip of the tongue is the expression of a repressed thought or desire without the concepts of repression or the unconscious. One cannot search for causes without first forging the concept of causation. To the same degree that our concepts allow us to see, they also bring about blindness. For everything that is brought into relief, something else is plunged into the shadows, thereby becoming invisible to thought and practice.


It is here, perhaps, that we encounter the shortcomings of correlationism. In foregrounding or bringing into relief the relation between subject and object, correlationism calls us to explore how the thing is meaningfully given to consciousness in, as Husserl put it, lived experience, or how objects form a sort of cultural text to be deciphered as we learn from thinkers such as Baudrillard. This is what is rendered visible. However, what is plunged into the shadows, what is rendered invisible, is the thingliness of the thing itself, or the manner in which the thing, the object, acts on us and other things qua its being as a thing. The thing becomes a mere canvas functioning as a surface of inscription for meanings and values. Consider, for example, the dollar bill or the Korean won, correlationist beings if ever there were. The materiality of the dollar bill or won as a being of paper and ink is largely irrelevant. This is why these beings can indifferently exist in paper or electronic form. Dollar bills and won are semiotic entities, constituted not by their materiality, but rather by their significations.


Correlationism tends to reduce all beings to semiotic entities, and in doing so renders the thingliness of things, their power of acting qua thing, invisible. To be sure, there are vast domains of ideological and discursive power that we must explore as thinkers such as Zizek and Foucault have taught us. Discursive, semiotic entities such as how we classify genders and ethnicities, as well as national borders, laws, etc., exercise enormous power in our lives. However, we must not forget “thing-power” or the power that things exercise in our lives and upon one another. This is above all imperative for thinking the Anthropocene, climate change, disability, design, and so many other things. Discrimination against the disabled, ableism, for example, is not merely the result of an ideology or a prejudice, but is right there in the architectural layout of buildings that determine whether or not a person can enter the building in a wheel chair. It is not a discourse or sign that poisons the oceans with algae blooms, but rather fertilizer runoff from farming that super-charges algae growth. The concept of a subjectless object calls for us to think and investigate what things contribute to the world as things, rather than as bearers and supports of our intentions and significations.


A second key claim that has kept with me after all of these years is the thesis that objects are divided between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. Let us here recall Aristotle. His word for object is “substance”. Substances are those things that exist in and through themselves such as trees, the sun, tanuki, aardvarks, human beings, sea gulls, rocks, etc. By substance Aristotle largely is referring to individual beings or entities. Substance is his word for object or thing. In the Categories, Aristotle claims that substances are subjects or supports of predicates. You must have a substance, he says, for predicates like roundness, running, red, and so on, to inhere in. We say that the ball, a substance, is red and round. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle contends that qualities such as roundness and redness cannot exist in their own right, but rather always require a substance in which to exist.


Our tendency is to think of objects, things, or substances as inert bundles of properties or qualities. When asked to articulate what a particular type of object is, we present a list of properties. The rock is grey with silvery speckles in it. It has such and such a weight. It has a rough texture whose geometry we can carefully describe if we are so inclined. The rock is what it is, we say. It does not change unless it is acted upon.


The distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation strives to present a far more dynamic, mysterious conception of objects. The virtual proper being of an object refers to its powers or capacities. All objects, I argue, harbor hidden powers or capacities that we can never fully fathom or know. The local manifestations of an object are the ways in which these powers are actualized in the world as a result of interactions with other objects.


To understand this concept, let us take two examples: stones rich in iron and our own bodies. Suppose you were a member of a strange alien species born on the moon. This species is somewhat similar to plants, somehow living off of the dim sunlight of the planet, yet not requiring water, nor producing oxygen. Now, due to the chemical composition of Mars’s tin atmosphere, it might not ever occur to such an alien that iron rich rocks can rust and turn brown. These iron rich rocks harbor the power of rusting within themselves, the power to rust is a part of their virtual proper being, yet rust never locally manifests itself because the atmosphere of the moon simply does not have the oxygen and water necessary for oxidation to take place. Whether or not the powers of an object are unleashed in a local manifestation is dependent upon the context or field of relations in which the object resides.

Now, take the example of our own bodies. Nothing seems more obvious than the fact that we walk. I place one leg in front of the other and walk upon the earth. This is all an affair of how I use my body. The earth is merely something upon which I walk. However, now suppose that you are an astronaut that travels to Mars. Mars is about 15% of the mass of the earth. The gravity is therefore quite different. As you go to take your first few steps on the red planet, you quickly fall over. Just watch the video footage of the first astronauts trying to walk on the moon. They immediately fell over and struggled on the ground like turtles turned over on their shells. It is literally impossible to walk on the moon or Mars. Rather, to move on these bodies you must do something that is a sort of combination of hopping and walking like a crab.


The lesson I draw from this is that walking is not a power of our bodies, but rather is a local manifestation of the virtual power of walking that arises in relation to the body upon which we move. We do not walk on the earth, but rather with the earth. The earth contributes to my capacity to walk not simply by providing a surface upon which to walk, but rather by providing a gravitational field that allows my muscles to act in particular ways. In the absence of that specific gravity on bodies such as the Moon or Mars, my muscles can no longer behave or locally manifest themselves in that way. We fold or pleat the earth into ourselves so as to be able to walk, such that walking is not something I alone do, but that the earth does as well. We are like sail boats. The sail alone does not sail, but rather only sails with the wind. What a being can do, its virtual proper being, is activated in different local manifestations in relation to other beings.


In mobilizing the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestations, my hope is that we will cease reducing objects to their qualities, features, or properties, thereby essentializing them. Rather, we should see as the features or properties of objects as events arising out of the varied ways in which the virtual proper being of an object actualizes itself in local manifestations as it interacts with the broader world about it. In this way, I hope, we will be more attentive to how things behave and manifest themselves differently depending on the broader than object field into which they find themselves. We never fully know what an object will do as a function of the context in which it is placed, and therefore should exercise some caution and humility when deploying things into the world.


Finally, the third thesis that has stayed with me is that of flat ontology. The declaration of flat ontology is that while all objects do not equally affect other beings in the world-- the sun, for example, impacts far more entities than a flea –all objects equally exist. Again, I want to emphasize that this is not a normative or a political claim. In claiming all objects equally exist, I am not suggesting that all objects are equally valuable in worth and dignity. I am simply pointing out that they all exist, that they are all things.


When put in this way, I suspect that all of you think to yourselves, “who would have ever thought otherwise?” And indeed, it would be odd for anyone to think otherwise. However, we nonetheless have a tendency to rank beings. Returning to a theme I discussed earlier, the correlationist tends to place the human above everything else as if we were sovereigns of being. Likewise, in western philosophy there is a long history of treating culture as above and outside of nature.


With flat ontology, my hope is to escape that vector of thought that places above and outside of nature, treating us as sovereigns of all other things, so as to see ourselves as always entangled with the rest of the world. There is not one domain called culture and another called nature, the two of which can be strictly delineated from one another as if divided by a wall. Rather there is only being or the universe. We are not sovereigns of things, but are always already among things. It is my considered position that if we are to properly think climate change and the Anthropocene, we must flatten our conception of being in this way.

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