Levi R. Bryant: Onticology and the new Realism

“There is a science which investigates Being as Being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.”      – Aristotle, Metaphysics

“Idealism consists in the assertion, that there are none but thinking beings, all other things, which we think are perceived in intuition, being nothing but representations in the thinking beings, to which no object external to them corresponds in fact. Whereas I say, that things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances…”

– Kant, Immanuel, Works of Immanuel Kant

“If politics is to be possible, if there is to be agency, it will only be in a system where entities are granted full autonomy and are not simple epiphenomena of a virtual Spinozist One-All.”

    – Levi R. Bryant, Difference and Giveness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence

Levi R. Bryant’s new book The Democracy of Objects is an empowering exploration of the new philosophical debates that have surfaced over the past few years under the agonistic and often contentious appellation of speculative realism. That Bryant began his career under the shadow of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy shows forth clearly in his early work Difference and Giveness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. Of this early work one reviewer tells us that “Bryant’s book is a book on Deleuze’s metaphysics alone because, he argues, Deleuze’s ethics and politics follow from his metaphysics. Yet the all to common tendency has been to treat his ethics and politics almost as if they were primary – or worse – completely separate from his metaphysics. What must be emphasised, if we are to understand Deleuze at all, is that Deleuze does not construct this system of metaphysics because of his ethical or political views, but rather his politics and ethics follow from his metaphysics (Review by Jeremy Dunham).”

In many ways this new work is a continuation and outgrowth of the earlier work on Deleuze. We see the meticulous and carefully reasoned argument, the measure of opposing views and even cultures played off each other, the slow progression and development – one might even say, methodical portrayel and implications drawn out of this agonistic mesh incorporated into a new metaphysical dwelling. He forms deep alliance with all those for whom the dislodgement of the ‘human’ from the center of philosophical speculation has become a mainstay of praxis, and the reintrenchment of ontology in its place. The ontological thesis that all “objects, as Ian Bogost, has so niecely put it, equally exist while they do not exist equally (p. 19) is at the heart of his new book.” He sees a need for the two cultures of the Anti-humanist and the Post-humanist perspectives to merge into a new synthesis. His flat ontology proposes that 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 (p. 248).”

One of the more outlandish statements he offers is that the world does not exist, and “this is because the world must not be treated as a milieu in which beings or objects are contained as parts to a whole (p. 271).” By this he means there is no monolithic object that encompasses all other objects within itself, instead – after Badiou, there is not “world, but rather worlds (p. 272).” Explicating this he goes on, saying, “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 (p. 272).” He opens the door toward a still undefined politics that may at some time in the future arise out of his projects, which I for one would welcome for Bryant has so far been reluctant to confuse the two realms of a philosophy of onticology with any form of political outgrowth. I agree that ontology has nothing to do with politics, yet we can see by certain statements that it might have everything to do with the foundations of a political philosophy to come.

For as he sums up his ideas of the non existent world he states:

“… 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 (p. 279).”

This is a work that I’ll defintely read and reread over the next year, a work that can change the very foundations of how we seek to welcome within our small worlds those strange strangers who form the unheard collectives of our unfounded futures. Expressing how a strategy of composition might take effect he explores the invisibility of non-human actors in current social theory:

“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 (p. 289) .”

Yet, this does not lead to a deterministic philosophy, instead it turns toward a vision of artistic excellence and creativity in its marking of the contribution of all objects within collective(s) as being on equal footing:
“…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 (p. 290).”

Interesting synchronicity in this post by Levi that shows some of his political affiliations, as well as his separation of onticology from politics: read here.

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