What is an object? One interesting way to avoid the problem of getting the subject and object back together to secure knoweldge is by not introducing the division in the first place. What if everything was only objects? We could then think of the subject as a highly composite type of object. Before proposing my own kinetic theory of the object I would like to consider the strengths and weaknesses of two major theories of the object. In these theories, instead of dividing the world up into subjects and objects, they divide it up into objects and their relations.
One version of this approach is called “relational ontology.” In this view, an object is nothing other than the set of all its relations with other objects. In one popular version of this theory called, “Actor Network Theory,” relationships are primary and objects emerge as nodes from pre-existing networks. Objects are what they do, or how they act through their distributed networks. In a relational ontology, there is no such thing as an object that is unrelated to other objects.
Furthermore, in this view, there is no pre-given hierarchy among objects. Relations can always shift around and become different. Objects have no static essences because it is the wider network that defines and differentiates them from one another. This is all true with or without humans. Objects are born and die, but network patterns, as such, do not because they precede and exceed all objects. What then is the source of change and novelty in the networks if it is not the objects themselves? How could networks change without objects that move?
One answer to this question comes from another kind of relational ontology called, “vitalist new materialism.”[i] In this view, relations are “vital,” “virtual,” “forces” that create “changes” in relations without any material movement in objects.[ii] Its proponants do not call this a “static” view of objects but it is still a view that erases motion or kinetic change in favor of virtual or relational change.[iii] The French philosopher and founder of Actor Network Theory, Bruno Latour, for example, rejects the “static” view of architecture, but instead proposes to replace it with a theory of “successive freeze-frames that could at last document the continuous flow that a building always is.”[iv] However, Graham Harman, who we will discus next, is correct to say that this “freeze-frame model of time simply multiplies the problem of stasis, then tries to solve it by the fiat of claiming that all of these standalone instantaneous moments are linked by something called a ‘trajectory.’”[v]
But before getting into the differences with my own approach, let’s look at one final non-movement-based theory of the object.
Object Oriented Ontology
In “Object Oriented Ontology,” everything is objects and relations. Similar to the relational view of objects, this view agrees that objects are connected together in networks of changing relations, with or without humans. However, for object oriented ontologists, objects are not reducible to their relations. Objects are “discrete,” “stable,” “unknowable,”[vi] “things-in-themselves” with “definite boundaries and cut-off points.”[vii] Each object is “vacuum-sealed” off from others and contains within it a secret or “withdrawn essence”[viii] that is “singular” to it alone.[ix] Graham Harman, a founder and proponent of this theory, describes it as a kind of Kantianism without a subject—everything is an unknowable object in-itself.[x]
Harman disagrees with the objectivists because he says they “undermine” objects by reducing them to what they are made of (matter and particles). He also rejects the constructivist and relational views because he says they “overmine” objects by reducing them to their network of relations. The typical explanation given by the sciences, he says, “duomines” objects by claiming that they are just components of larger objects, which also have their own components.
The worry of the object ontologist is that by defining the object purely by its relations with others, the object itself is explained away by something else. The “real essence” of the object in-itself would be lost behind the appearance of its fluctuating relations. Therefore, the only way to protect the essence and reality of objects, in this view, is to “vacuum-seal” an “unexpressed reservoir”[xi] of the object off from all its relations with others.[xii]
How does this theory account for changes in objects? Harman splits the object into two parts. One part changes along with its relations while the other part has “hidden volcanic energy that could … lead it to turn into something different.”[xiii] This is why Harman criticizes relational ontologies for not being able to account for change. “Unless the thing holds something in reserve behind its current relations, nothing would ever change,” Harman says.[xiv] In this view, the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion, but only every now and then. “Stability is the norm”[xv] because mostly objects are “aloof [and] do not act at all: they simply exist, too non-relational to engage in any activity whatsoever.”[xvi]
However, as much as Harman claims that the essences of objects do not have “an eternal character,”[xvii] and can even be “transient,”[xviii] and accuses relational theories of being “static,”[xix] he also ultimately admits that the hidden parts of objects “transcend” the world and do not engage in any activity whatsoever.[xx] Since movement, as I understand it, requires activity of some kind, object ontology’s eventual position is still one of immobility and stasis. So even though Harman says that change can come from something that has “no action whatsoever,” such a metaphysical belief amounts to a violation of every known law of physics.
What then is the philosophy of movement and how does it offer us a new way forward that overcomes the limits of the previous theories? The philosophy of movement is a kind of process philosophy. This means that instead of treating objects as static forms, it treats them as metastable processes. Some of movements are small and iterative and allow the object to remain relatively stable like a river eddy. Other movements are more dramatic and can either destroy or transform objects like a turbulent rain storm.
By contrast, the theories above define the object according to some kind of stasis. As such, they are unable to theorize the movement, novel transformation, and emergence of objects completely. Let’s look quickly at the limits of each of just two of these theories and then see how the philosophy of movement compares.
The problem with objectivism is that it treats objects as if they were unchanged by the conditions of their discovery and observation. This view ignores the history, relations, and agency of objects and treats them as entirely passive. But if they are merely passive how could they possibly emerge alongside others or affect observers?
On the other hand, the problem with constructivism is that if the object is nothing other than what humans think or say about it, it is also robbed of all its agency and activity to affect others. If objects are incapable of their own movement and novelty then how do they emerge and change? Constructivism is also forced to posit a radical difference between human subjects and natural objects that leaves it trapped in its own world.
At least relational theories of objects reject this division and acknowledge that objects act through their relations. The problem, however, is these relations by preceding and exceeding objects fully determine them. Where then is the agency and motion of the object? How can the object introduce novel and generative motions into such relations? For Latour, the relations that constitute objects are, by definition, completely determinate and mappable. Changes in relations do not originate from the movement of objects or their materiality but occur like a series of sudden “freeze-frames” in the networks.
Finally, although object oriented ontology tries not to reduce objects to unchanging essences, social constructions, or relations, it saves the object only by completely sacrificing it. In the end, we are told the essence of the object completely transcends the world and is cut off from any relation to it. The core contradiction of this theory is that the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion and yet does not act or move in any way. It is ultimately a philosophy of immobility and static change.[xxi]
These theories of the object could not be more different, and yet they all try and explain the movement of the object by something that does not move (an essence, a mental/social representation, a flat relationality, or a completely inactive essence). The problem here is that these theories start with some kind of division either between subject and object or between object and relation.
What is different about the philosophy of movement? The key difference is that instead of trying to explain movement by something else, it starts from the historical statement that “there is nothing in the universe that is not in motion.” This is a falsifiable claim. If it is experimentally proven wrong, I am prepared to concede my position and explore the philosophical consequences of the alternative.
From this perspective, I agree with Harman that objects are singular and irreducible to their determinate parts or relations. However, for me, this is because the movements of matter that comprise objects are not fundamentally determinate. Matter, or what physicists would more precisely call “energy,” at its smallest level is “indeterminate fluctuations.” These fluctuations are not particles, substances, or objects, and cannot be directly observed or known. Saying objects are “reducible” to indeterminate energy makes no sense. There is no determinate “something” that is at the heart of the reduction.
Movement, in this sense, is “indeterminate movement” and relations are “indeterminate relations.” The indeterminate movement of matter, in my view, has no higher or exterior causal explanation, or at least there is no experimentally verified one, or hint of one yet. That is not to say that there aren’t theories that try to interpret it away.[xxii] However, at the moment, I am putting my philosophical wager behind the real possibility that ongoing indeterminate movement is a fundamental feature of nature. When Lucretius put the indeterminate swerve of matter at the heart of his philosophy in the first century BCE commentators balked for centuries, but now its established science.
How might an object oriented ontologist respond to this alternative? Graham Harman has already responded to the idea of quantum indeterminacy in a recent article on the work of the physicist, Karen Barad. There he writes that “undermining treats individual objects as too shallow to be the truth and seeks to replace them either with a micro-army of tinier things or a primordial lump of indeterminate flux.”[xxiii] In response to this I would say two things. First of all, for Barad, and myself, objects are just as “true” as quantum fields and the idea of “replacement” makes no sense since objects are made of fields. Obviously field theory does not explain poverty, and no one thinks it does, so this too is an irrelevant point. Second, there could literally not be anything less like a “primordial lump” in the entire universe than indeterminate flux. One of the most important events in the history of science was the discovery that matter/energy is not a substance and has no fixed a priori properties. Lumps are undifferentiated, but indeterminate fluctuations are the processes of differentiation that create and sustain all differences. Harman, in my opinion, has misunderstood the meaning of quantum indeterminacy and fluctuation in a way that invalidates his objection to Barad and myself.
It may sound like a small shift in starting points to go from stasis to movement, but it makes a huge difference. The theories above have a method that follows uniquely from its starting point and so does a movement-oriented theory of objects. Therefore, if we want a theory of the object that can make sense of its movement, emergence, and novelty, these first options will not work. Instead of assuming from the outset that the world is either made of, or can be explained by, something immobile and unchanging and then trying to account for motion and process—the kinetic theory of the object inverts this logic. It begins from the historical discovery of quantum flux and then try and explain the emergence of scientific knowledge given this new starting principle.
The philosophy of movement offers a new kind of process philosophy distinct from older models of process based on vital forces, as in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, or on static strobe-like “occasions,” as described by Alfred North Whitehead.[xxiv] My term for this third kind of process philosophy is “process materialism” or “kinetic materialism.”[xxv]
If an object is not an essence, idea, or relation, then what it is, according to a process philosophy of movement? In the kinetic theory of the object we need look no further than the kinetic origins of the word “object,” from the Latin ob– (“against”) + iaciō (“I throw”). The object is a fundamentally kinetic process. It is something thrown into motion and turned against or looped around itself. It is a fold. Instead of a discrete, vacuum-sealed atom, objects are much more like continuous processes that folds back over themselves, making larger and more complicated knots. The object, as its Latin origins suggest, is not a discrete or static block in space and time a kinetic process.
[i] I have in mind here especially Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Thomas Lemke’s critique of her metaphysics of relations in, “An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and Problems of Jane Bennett’s Vital Materialism,”Theory, Culture & Society, May 17, 2018, 1–24. “To put it in an old-fashioned vocabulary: Bennett endorses an ‘idealist’ account of materialism.” “To put it bluntly: there is a lack of materiality in this vital materialism.” But also Manuel De Landa, Assemblage Theory(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) and Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Here is not the place to engage an entire literature review and critique of various relational positions, since I have already treated them elsewhere in Being and Motion, Chapter 3 and at length in Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) “What is New Materialism?,” Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134.
[ii] Here I also have in mind the work of other process philosophers like Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Alfred North Whitehead whose work is of great interest and inspiration to me and
whose theories are perhaps closest to my own. However, my own “kinetic process philosophy” diverges from each of them on a number of important central points whose full explanation requires its own careful chapter-length treatment and review that would be redundant to reproduce here since it is already published as chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[iii] For a critique of the idea of change without motion see chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[iv] (La-tour, Yaneva, 2008: 81).ardeth#01_interni.indb 11628/08/17 14:12
[v] Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva, 117
[vi] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 13.
[vii] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 15.
[viii] “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO)—a term coined by Graham Harman, and defines a theoretical commitment to thinking the real beyond the human experience. As such the reality of matter is never something anthropocentric, experienced or relational, but always something which “withdraws.” This leads Harman, like Badiou to affirm what they call “a new sort of ‘formalism.’” Timothy Morton similarly argues against “some kind of substrate, or some kind of unformed matter” in favor of infinitely withdrawn essential forms. Cited in Thomas Lemke, “Materialism Without Matter: the Recurrence of Subjectivism in Object-Oriented Ontology.” Distinktion. 18.2 (2017): 133-152. See also Carol A. Taylor, “Close Encounters of a Critical Kind: A Diffractive Musing In Between New Material Feminism and Object-Oriented Ontology,” Cultural Studies, (2016) 16(2), 201-212.
[ix] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 16.
[x] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 27-29.
[xii] Graham Harmon, “On Vicarious Causation,” in Collapse II, 211.
[xiv] (Harman 2009: 187) cited in lemke
[xv] Immaterialism pg. 16
[xvii] (Immaterialism 47)
[xviii] “everything has an autonomous essence, however transient it may be,”immaterialism, 16
[xx] Harman says “I would like to volunteer OOO to serve as a model of what they [Bruno Latour Albena Yaneva] and call static architecture.” Harman, “Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva”
[xxi] Latour and Harman are “secular occasionalists” who believe that change occurs discontinuously without material movement. For Latour it is the networks that change discontinuously and for Harman it is the objects that change discontinuously. “In this way, Bruno Latour is the first secular occasionalist: the founder of what I have called vicarious causation.” prince of networks, pg 115
I am not the only one to describe Harman’s theory of change as static. See Shaviro, in speculative turn. “Harman accounts for change by appealing to the emergence of qualities that were previously submerged in the depths of objects; but he does not explain how those objects came to be, or how their hidden properties got there in the first place.” p.285 the speculative turn Shaviro’s piece. “Harman’s entities, in contrast, do not spontaneously act or decide; they simply are. For Harman, the qualities of an entity somehow already pre-exist; for Whitehead, these qualities are generated on the fly. Harman, as we have seen, discounts relations as inessential; his ontology is too static to make sense of them.” (287) spec. turn shaviro.
For a critique of OOO’s theory of change see also: Object-Oriented Ontology and Its Critics
C.J. Davies The Problem of Causality in Object-Oriented Ontology
See also Lemke, article materialism without matter.
I also thank Christopher N. Gamble for talking through OOO’s static ontology with me.
[xxii] See Sean Carroll’s latest book.
[xxiv] For a more detailed account of the differen
[xxv] See Being and motion