The Democracy of Objects: Split-Objects

In The Democracy of Objects, Bryant looks to avoid the epistemological trap of “correlationism” by borrowing a novel kind of transcendental argument from Roy Bhasker. Rather than asking what our minds would have to be like in order to experience the world as we do, Bryant asks what the world would have to be like in order for the kind of experimental activity engaged in by scientists to be intelligible.

In this sense, Bryant proposes a “desuturation of transcendental modes of argumentation from mind and the social” that effectively shifts the register of philosophical discourse from epistemology to ontology (44).

This shift in register from epistemology to ontology is the crucial philosophical move.

Rather than asking what a mind would have to be like, we instead ask what an object would have to be like (hence the name, “object-oriented ontology”).

The aim of an experiment is to create the kind of closed conditions that can dependably solicit certain qualities from an object. What would an object have to be like in order for this work to make sense?

Following Bhaskar, Bryant argues that objects must be “intransitive” for this work to make sense. To say that objects must be intransitive is to say that “objects are withdrawn from any qualities they might happen to manifest” (52).

The claim that objects are always fundamentally “out of phase” with any qualities they manifest in relation to a given set of conditions is the sine qua non of an object-oriented ontology. It is also the condition of possibility for an experiment. If an object does not exist in excess of its manifest qualities, then what exactly is the experiment soliciting new qualities from?

This, then, is the metaphysical cornerstone of a transcendental ontology (rather than a transcendental epistemology): objects exist independent of the qualities they manifest in relation to their situations.

In light of this, what can we say, then, about the nature of an “object?” Quite a bit. To start, we can say that objects are irreducible to their manifestations in the world. We can say that objects are withdrawn from their qualities. We can say that objects enjoy an independent existence. Indeed, intransitive and independent, we can legitimately say that objects are substances.

We can say, too, that objects, though real, are not simply actual. While a given set of qualities may actualize in a given situation, the object is not itself identical with those actual qualities. Objects are not their generated qualities. They are the “generative mechanisms” or “difference engines” that withdraw in the generation of those local relations. In this way, “objects or generative mechanisms are defined not by their qualities or events, but rather by their powers or capacities. An object cannot be without its powers or capacities, but it can be without its qualities or events” (68).

Bryant’s transcendental ontology (or “onticology”) requires us to distinguish

between objects and their relations, or rather the structure of objects and the relations into which objects enter. I call the former ‘endo-relations’ (or, following Graham Harman, ‘domestic relations’), and the latter ‘exo-relations’ (or, as Harman calls them, ‘foreign relations’). Endo-relations constitute the internal structure of objects independent of all other objects, while exo-relations are relations that objects enter into with other objects. (68)

Rather than a subject epistemologically split by representation, we have a world full of objects ontologically split between their generative endo-relations and generated exo-relations.

Every object is a “split-object.”

The aspiration to pure presence should be abandoned, not because we can’t know it but because it can’t exist. We must wake up from the dream of absolute presence, from the dream of the absence of absence, because

we have now discovered that it is being itself that is split between generative mechanisms or objects and the actual. Difference, deferral, absence, and so on are not idiosyncracies of our being preventing us from ever reaching being, but are, rather, ontological characteristics of being as such. Moreover, this split at the heart of all beings is not simply characteristic of those objects that we would seek to know, but is also characteristic of the peculiar objects that we are. We ourselves are split. If, then, this split is a general ontological feature of the world, then the dream of presence required for any form of foundationalism is a priori impossible. (61)

In such a world, we would have to learn how to practice theology as something other than a form of foundationalism (celebrated or deferred) – not because we lack access to the one true foundation, but because there isn’t one.

True, the “absolute” persists in onticology, but it persists as a multitude of absolute splits rather than as a single absolute presence.

Here, Bryant argues, we should note that

onticology and object-oriented philosophy are both metaphysics and ontologies that thoroughly escape what Derrida refers to as ontotheology and the metaphysics of presence. Far from being a signifier that denotes presence or the fullness of being, the very essence of substance is to withdraw from presence and to be in excess of all actuality. However, this overturning of the metaphysics of presence occurs not through a demonstration of the manner in which being always harbors deferral and difference for us such that presence is forever unobtainable, but rather by showing that being as such, being in itself, withdraws in this way. (86)

As a result, an object-oriented approach carries through all of the key insights of postmodern thought – but it ratifies and preserves them by transposing them into an ontological register.

In the object-oriented pews, religion is no longer about belief as a temporary band-aid for epistemological finitude. Rather, it is about ongoing fidelity as grounds for an object-oriented charity.