Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Men, Horses and Blue Mugs: Onticology of Substance

Levi Bryant's rather elegant elaboration and rehabilitation of Aristotelian substance in his Democracy of Objects ("The Paradox of Substance" and "Virtual Proper Being") lays an interesting foundation for understanding objects that entail autonomy and independence from phenomenality. Lately, Levi has loosened his notion of materiality from that of substance, and might be abandoning substance altogether in his revisiting (repetition) of Lacan's Borromean knot. Though I anticipate some clarifications from Levi, I do not hesitate to speculate on what that might mean for a system of objects as 'difference generators' (what Levi now calls 'machines') vis a vis what's going on in the Genesis texts. What follows in this post is not so much a critique of Levi's theses as it is my own reflection on how Levi's work might come to bear on theological gestures (all page numbers appearing in this post refer to Democracy of Objects and will be given in parentheses).

Levi embraces the 'archaic' Aristotelian term for its application to objects whose equality is at the level of substance: therein lies the democracy of objects--not that all objects are of the same substance, but that all objects have substance. This principle subverts any possibility that one object can be the ground of another. (73). The ground rules of Levi's system of objects entail several axioms which are in turn contextualized within [his debt to] Roy Bhasker's fundamentally religious question (A Realist Theory of Science [New York: Routledge, 1998]) on the condition of the world that makes science possible (42ff):

1. Because difference engines or substances are not identical to the events or qualities they produce, while nonetheless substances, however briefly, endure, the substantial dimension of objects deserves the title of virtual proper being. (69) .

2. ...substances are not predicated of anything else, it follows that substances are not in anything else in the sense that qualities are in substances. As Aristotle puts it, “[i]t is a characteristic common to every substance not to be in a subject. For a primary substance is neither said of a subject nor in a subject”. Substances are not something in an individual thing, but are rather what individual things are. (74)
3. ...objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations, harboring hidden volcanic powers irreducible to any of their manifestations in the world.(70)
4. The substantiality of objects is never to be equated with the qualities they produce.(70)

The blue mug sitting on Levi's desk illustrates the system of objects presented. The substance and virtual proper being of the mug secures for it its rights in this democracy. "The virtual proper being of an object is what makes an object properly an object. It is that which constitutes an object as a difference engine or generative mechanism. However, no one nor any other thing ever encounters an object qua its virtual proper being, for the substance of an object is perpetually withdrawn or in excess of any of its manifestations" (88). I understand Levi to be asserting here that the substance, or materiality of an object is only encountered through its local manifestation of which phenomenality is a subset (a special case)--when the object's materiality presents itself in the experience of a human object--when a subject encounters the local manifestation of another object.

So, in order to say something onticologically true about the blue mug, we must stipulate that "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the mug is blue or that the mug possesses the quality of blue. Rather, if we had an ontologically accurate language, we would instead say that “the mug blues” or that “the mug is bluing” or that “the mug does blue”. So for Levi's democracy, an object may or may not exert its power, but it might under certain circumstances. That is, the object's qualities are acts of being predicated of its substance.
The genius of this system is in its generative and coherent explicative strength. Such a democracy is a very big tent, as it admits all objects as objects that make a difference. Famously, there is no difference that does not make a difference, and if a difference is made then the being is.

Things really get interesting when Levi rewrites (repeats?) his democracy into Lacan's Borromean knot of the relation among the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary. In short, The Real now becomes the domain of materiality (substance); the Imaginary becomes the domain of phenomenology, and the Symbolic becomes the domain of (meta)narratives. Of course, Lacan's RSI has always had more than aleatory implications for theological gestures, if for no other reason than for its superficial trinitarian structure. Levi's own Borromean Critical Theory may have its own appeal for trinitarian reasons, but also for the play of objects in the predicament of entanglement(s), as Catherine Keller implies in her own recent work, but also, of course, in its appeal to the recent themes of this blog: reshith, the event in/of creation, and the reality of God and liturgical process.

Any process theology, tehomic or ante-tehomic (the latter my own inclination), would understand Borromean critical theory within a democracy of objects as essentially metonymic, and not paradigmatic. Given his commitment to a flat ontology, I can anticipate Levi's agreeing with this idea, namely, that the relation between the 'rings' is linear and syntagmatic, not paradigmatic, with its inherent risk of hierarchy. Any relationality in the knot traces itself on the string itself, not in the spaces that overlap or not.

The condition of the world that renders science (e.g., theology) possible is its transcendental intelligibility. That intelligibility need not be grounded in the Logos, or divine intelligence, but in its mere substance, and its manifestations, and eventually as its phenomenality (by phenomenality I am respecting the primacy of manifestations). From the perspective of Genesis, we can locate, in solid time, a materiality of reshith, of beginning. Since the qualities of any materiality are what it (substance) does, there is a real distinction to be made between the creating object and the created. Reshith generates secondary substances, that are not of itself, but manifestations of itself, through the action of its qualities, what materiality does. It is the very being of some objects in reality to simply do. Being as doing without diminishing substance, without breaking a piece off of a substance. The qualities are predicated of materiality, until and when they, as secondary substances, become primary substances, and therefore enter the horizon of being without grounding in what originary objects do. What Elohim is doing in reshith, he does because he is doing, not grounding. Elohim is not the ground of heaven and earth, he is their doing, their creating into the horizon of substantial democracy. Elohim, God, is not the ground of being, but the condition, the transcendental reality that makes intelligible intelligibility, and theological gestures possible. This is what we mean when we say that God loves before he is, where 'before' is an artifact of language rather than the event within the actual horizon of love.

Entanglement answers the question of sustaining the world. The autonomy and independence of objects from grounding remain coherent only in radical freedom in responsibility. Now these terms might seem particular (peculiar?) to a certain kind of object, a sentient object, or human object, but if science is to remain possible, then the world must adopt a conformation that is a viable condition for science, which is entangled only if its possible. That is why the scientific gesture will always be a religious one.

It does not matter that the blue mug is techne. In reshith, arche and techne stand in the same solid space-time:  they are one and the same. The blue mug is an object quite independent of its final cause (if I may say such things), as is its 'bluing.' The (very) local 'geopolitic' of a mug bluing, is anchored into its materiality in a way that drives its phenomenality and its untold story (semiosis). The very condition for the blue mug to be, accounts for all its manifestations, whether they present to the experience of Dasein or not. Indeed, if we are to take the very excess of objects seriously, that they cannot be contained in local manifestions or any category of qualities, then the release of the event of object qua object must occur on the horizon of democracy.

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