Posted by: Johan Normark | September 14, 2010

Process vs object

I am slowly trying to catch up with what Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (OOO) is all about. Yesterday I read his review of Manuel DeLanda’s ontology of which I am much more familiar with. Harman is very positive to DeLanda’s ontology since he considers DeLanda to be one of few realists within continental philosophy which is dominated by idealism. Hence, “if Zizek [a major influence in for example microarchaeology] marks one frank extreme of contemporary continental thought, DeLanda represents the other” (p. 370).

DeLanda marks the emergence of “neomaterialism” and “neorealism.” What is new here than? Well, in the old fashioned realism that people find to be outdated is that there is an arbitrary division between natural substance (nature) and artificial aggregate (culture). DeLanda replaces these with assemblage that covers all real entities such as computers, mosquitoes, EU, galaxies, bottles, etc. I have repeatedly discussed the concept of assemblage on this blog. There is no longer a dialectical model of interaction between things. Relations are external to their terms (p. 371).

There are no essences in DeLanda’s assemblages. Individual assemblages are instead defined by morphogenetic processes. It is here we begin to see the difference between Harman and DeLanda. Harman argues that DeLanda, since he is a Deleuzian, moves away from the concrete individual toward a previous historical trajectory of emergence (p. 372). The individual is just a momentary actualization of a long process. Harman argues that DeLanda’s ontology therefore also is designed to oppose actualism which is the view that reality only consists of things here and now. Hence, DeLanda “celebrates the flow of genesis over fully formed individuals” (p. 373). DeLanda emphasizes phase spaces, attractors, bifurcations, topological invariants, which lie outside the individuals of the populations that embody them (p. 375). For DeLanda, “individuals become sterile crystallizations atop a dynamic genetic process or pre-individual virtuality” (p. 376).

However, as Harman (p. 373) rightly points out, “real things lose most of their histories…” If a thing’s whole history was preserved in the present its emergence would not be able to break with the forces that made it emerge. Harman suggests that we should attempt to escape relationism rather than actualism. He wishes to “establish a new model of individual entities as free of all relation, and hence as cut off from each other and from their own histories” (p. 374). He argues that DeLanda wrongly claims that “since individual entities are always actual, they are also always relational…” (p. 379). For Harman actualism and relationism need not be the same. Objects are actuals since they are individuals rather than disembodied topological invariants. Harman seeks to “develop a new theory of specific objects: withdrawn from their constituent parts and environmental wholes, yet somehow managing to engage in causal interactions with those neighbors anyway” (p. 380).

I still have not made my mind up whether or not process or object best describes reality. As archaeologists we often try to see the relations an object has had in the past. What we do get are snapshots, actuals if we want, here and there. These snapshots are separated by vast temporal (and sometimes spatial) voids. In my Licentiate thesis I claimed that such snapshots were part of a discontinuous duration a la Bachelard. In my Doctoral thesis I focused on continuous duration a la Bergson or the modified version by Deleuze. My earlier approach may actually fit OOO better than my current focus on morphogenetic trajectories of various assemblages (causeways and caves). I need to know more about OOO’s view of time and change.

Harman, Graham (2008). DeLanda’s ontology: assemblage and realism. Cont Philos Rev 41:367-383.



  1. +1 (I will get back to start off the important discussion on time as conceived through an ooo, when I have it – time, that is.)

  2. I think a matter of scale might answer the question of process versus object, a kind of E=mc^2 for OOO.

    Take a process which repeats itself. Make it temporarily interruptible. That is objects can pass by it only for short periods of time without being affected. Crank it up to many cycles per unit of time or other cyclical reference (or heck per mile) and the time available to pass through without effect gets down to nearly zero.

    Congratulations you now have a process behaving like an object.

  3. Marcus – looking forward to that.

    Anti – the issue is whether the things we see should be seen only from their current state and isolated from their past and their connections to other entities or if things are rather flows that connect to their past and their surroundings. Basically, in the flow perspective objects are processes.

  4. Ok here’s a long one… might wanna copy and paste it.

    The answer is you can only talk about an object concretely after you have observed it in action in various contexts. The precision of observation depends on whether the context, the object, and view angle (metaphorically) are matched well.

    For example I can talk about my lawn, while looking at a tree, from the mall. Precision there is going to be minimal. Or I could be on my lawn, looking at it and talking about it. Then my data is going to be very precise.

    The most complete way I can think of watching an object is through an event.

    There is a wrong way though. Normally we say my plane went from San Francisco to New York for a meeting or I flew from San Francisco to New York for a meeting. The first ignores me as an object. The second ignores the plane even though I flew. I call this map fixation syndrome. Avoid it.

    I tend to think of 4 elements:
    Independent – the moving object
    Dominant – the motivating object
    Context – the selective object
    Focus – the selected means of motion

    We have to start from the context – the meeting is soon and far away.

    1. The independent is placed in the context to form the sentence:

    I have to go to a meeting which is far away and I have to get there soon.

    2. From this conjunction we get an entangled object (a temporary context if you will). When we put the independent into this context we get back a collapsed (Quant Mech terms) pair of elements which is the sentence:

    I need an airplane to an airport to satisfy sentence one, to take me to New York. Notice that the departure point is not as important as I am in this setting.

    3. We can now analyze the elements.

    a. The independent is simple. It’s just me.

    b. The dominant must satisfy the context, receive the independent, and service the focus.

    I need to have baggage facilities at the airport and there must be refueling services and runways.

    c. The focus must be able to carry me over and be compatible with the services at the dominant.

    d. Note: Only in a distant context do we say that the plane provides the airport with the earning potential to be sustained. Here that is really irrelevant, but in the wake of a strike, or a long storm season, the earning ability of the airport might become relevant which then makes the focus, the plane more important there.

    Conclusion: You can only talk about your toys after you see them played with. Process and object are not only interchangeable as above but they are married to the understanding.

    BUT they are also separated not by extent but by purpose of discussion.

    • I think 3d comes close to what Heidegger said (I think it was) about us noticing the object only when it fails to work as we expect it work.

  5. I understand Harman’s critique, and it is certainly the case that DeLanda puts more emphasis on the issue of process than Harman does. Still I think we all would agree that both process and object are necessary concepts.

    I do think Harman’s critique of DeLanda is hyperbolic, particularly this note about objects losing their histories. DeLanda addresses this specifically in chapter two where he notes “the risk of placing too much emphasis on the historical birth of a particular assemblage, that is, on the processes behind the original emergence of its identity, at the expense of those processes which must maintain this identity between its birth and its death” (38). Process doesn’t have to focus on origins or histories.

    • The processes creating an object are most often no longer present in the object. Take an iron sword as an example. Processes leading up to the emergence of this sword involves mining of iron, melting, hammering, cooling, etc. These are no longer present in the object although from our experience of metal work we know it must pass through these processes in order for it to emerge as a sword.

      However, the same goes for “those processes which must maintain this identity between its birth and its death”. The processes maintaining its identity are many but apart from those being observable in the present they are gone.

  6. Anti vigilante knows nothing of “long”. This is long:

    For Harman, time arises from objects. Time is not, as commonsense would have it, a perfectly neutral continuum (along with space) where events simply unfold. Instead, Harman sees time as a byproduct of one object encountering another objects sensual version (the way it is revealed to the perceiving object). (And please: Let the ontology be flat here!) In Prince of Networks (2009) Harman writes:

    “There would be no sense of time if we could not experience streets or plastic bottles under subtly shifting conditions from one instant to the next. The feeling that time is flowing along is in fact a sense of the swirling play of accidents [what I will refer to as ‘features’, ‘superficial traits’ and so on] on the surface of slightly deeper intentional [sensual] objects.” (p. 247)

    Harman is not saying “time is an illusion”, but precisely that time is produced by the (semi-stable) tension between a shifting multitude of non-essential features on the surface of a sensual object and the unified, somewhat deeper laying “objectness” that these features nonetheless are attributed to. An object perceives (again: mind the flat ontology) another object – and experiences (I said “flat”!) time because the objectness of the perceived remains intact, even through an enormous variation of superficial traits.

    Change, on the other hand, is something completely different to Harman. In em>Prince of Networks, once again (there is a great chapter called ”Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos” on pages 214-221 that treats these very themes) Harman writes about change:

    “Instead of tension, what we need is a rupture in the bond between the thing and its qualities so that these qualities can be exchanged from one object to the next, like photons in the Bohr atom.” (p. 219)

    Fluctuations on the surface are not changes. As long as the object is what remains, and organizes all these passing “adumbrations” (Husserl), no real change could have occured. If you move around and gain a new perspective of an object, neither you nor the object you perceive undergoes any change. However, time clearly passes, along with the appearances of the perceived object…

    Compared to the constant variations at the surface of things, change is a rare thing in the universe. Causation, the cause of change, is buffered, so that not every possible relation an object can have, result in real change. Causation is also
    – vicarious (carried out indirectly, with the aid of a vicar, a mediator that in itself is an object),
    – asymmetric (causation is not something happening between accidents – because then change would occur all the time, or rather cancel itself out on the monist, all-including relational field – and not between real objects – because real objects must be withdrawn from each other – “but only when accident meets substantial form” (Prince of Networks, p. 220)), and
    – alluring (a key term for Harman that needs much explanation, some other time).

    The hope for archaeology in all of this could be for example that an artifact (an object, obviously) is not dependent on its alliances or its history to exist, once this existence is a fact. The artifact itself actually give out directives on how to approach it: There is a right way (or a few right ways) to handle a hammer, a bow and arrow, to build a causeway using certain materials, to build an aeroplane that can make use of the lifting-power of air and so on – every artifact-object has its own independent reality, that prompts us to approach it in a certain way.

    • It sounds, from what you say, that OOO time is similar to Bachelard’s discontinuous time where only nothingness is continuous (although Bachelard was not a realist). Would an object not interacting with another object experience nothingness?

      I like the distinction between time and change. It is not like Bergson’s device that “time is invention or it is nothing at all”. Invention would equal change here.

      Seems like I have to change some of my ideas regarding objects in the future (I have too many articles and one book in preparation that follows the DeLandian/Deleuzian approach for me to rewrite and rethink them).

      • I think your remark about Bergson is right on. About Bachelard:

        Harman talks about dormant objects, objects that “exists without relating, exists without perceiving” (Intentional objects for non-humans, p. 9 – by the way, this lecture revolves around the same subjects as that chapter in Prince of Networks that I’ve been referring to!). Such an object would not experience time, but could very well by itself wake up and start relating to other objects.

        Without really having thought about it, I would say that Harmans ontology then would resist the notion of continuity of nothingness. Each object is it’s own universe, the universe as a “whole” then fundamentally pluralistic(not a whole nor a uni-verse at all)! Getting object-oriented orovides an escape from the need of nothingness, void (Badiou), mana (Levi-Strauss) and so on, to explain change.

      • Bachelard’s view of time was a response to Bergson’s duration that lacks voids. It is full in Bachelard’s words. So you would say that both nothingness and fullness are the relations that Harman wishes to remove?

      • Perhaps. But I’m not sure. It’s probably safer to say that the problems that Bergsons concept of time and Bachelards concept of nothingness are designed to adress doesn’t really arise with Harmans ooo.

      • If Harman wants to take everythingness and nothingness out of the picture he is making a huge mistake. Sure they’re fuzzies trying to be absoluties but they’re essential to exposing government, corporate, union, religious, and media bullshit. I’ll admit though you have make a judgment call and see if your peers see eye to eye with you, but personally, even an old can opener can still open cans a spoon won’t.

        If there’s some intent to make philosophy able to make change happen, why trim its claws?

      • I am not sure what the implications of Harman’s philosophy will be for politics, religion, etc. I suspect every object is a kind of fullness in itself if it means that the object has no (dialectic) relation with something else. Bergson erased nothingness since he was against Hegelian dialectics (which I believe Bachelard attempted to defend). Perhaps Harman uses another terminology but the object cannot lack anything can it, it must be full in its actualization since he rejects the virtual?

      • Well… The bergsonian concept of virtual as a vast set of possibilities is not the same as the deleuzian concept virtuality as potentials, potencies, powers. And I get the feeling that Harman is really just rejecting the bergsonian concept, not realizing the important modifications that Deleuze has done to it. Harmans objects are, at least as I see it, packed full with powers not fully engaged at any given moment.

        It will be interesting to see Levi Bryants forthcoming book, where he crossbreads Deleuze-DeLanda and Harman, modifying but holding on to the concept of virtuality.

      • I am looking forward to that book as well. In the mean time is the Prince of Networks the best book on OOO yet? It is kind of hard to get a complete grasp of the ideas on their blogs.

      • It depends… 🙂 “Tool-Being” is mostly concerned with the theme of objects being withdrawn from relations into depths that neither humans nor inanimate objects have access to. “Guerrilla Metaphysics” develops the theme of vicarious causation (change!), that is, how objects can affect each other at all while being withdrawn. “Prince of Networks” is first and foremost a book that treats Latour as a philosopher and presents a latourian metaphysics. Of Harmans own themes the critique of relationism is the most notable in that book. The fourfold of time, space, essence and eidos is only hinted at, but is supposed to be more thoroughly developed in “The quadruple object” that will be published next spring (it is however being published in french (!) before that, pretty soon even).

        So, pick the theme that interests you the most – and then pick up the book!

      • I guess I need to check them all out and perhaps use them for my upcoming project on water as material (object). Hopefully I can still use some DeLanda and Deleuze because I am not ready to throw out the virtual yet.

      • Somehow, if you’re not too hot on Heidegger and Husserl, I recommend starting with “Guerrilla Metaphysics”. It has a rather extensive chapter that recaps “Tool-Being” for you.

        And I don’t think that you have to let go of Deleuze/DeLanda or the virtual, just reconsider certain aspects of them… Remember: I still call myself “deleuzian”!

      • Thanks for the advice, I am a bit tired of phenomenology.

      • 🙂 Most of us are! It should be noted though, that Harman takes both Heidegger and Husserl far beyond their phenomenological bonds. Men mycket fenomenologi-tugg blire…

  7. OOOps. I need some time to read through these comments. I am not as quick as Harman himself. I’ll be back but now I have to take care of mundane issues.

  8. Oh wow. LMAO (not in a derogatory way).

    I actually am tempted to go all the way to Time IS an Illusion. Superstring theory makes me queasy because they use pretty ideas to cover a mess, but if we consider the notion that curled up dimensions should really be called local transient dimensions then voila! time is an emergent property.

    I don’t like arbitrary features (damn those physical constants, and that’s coming from a theist). I do not see time as a dimension but rather as a tool. It is just another ratio that allows us to understand repeatable processes. I would even argue that in the absence of the cosmic background radiation, objects could not evolve internally without hitting something else.

  9. @Anti Vigilante (Not sure what I should make of the non-derogatory LMAO, but whattheheck, laughter is good!)

    I would just like to clear one thing up (there´s probably more that needs clearing up – I only ever write in English when commenting on English-speaking blogs. :-/ ):

    My remark about time not being an illusion must be understood from two directions. First, time is, just like any illusion or hallucination, perfectly real. The fact that it is constructed, an emergent byproduct, doesn’t make it any less so… But the point was actually – second – that, unlike an illusion or hallucination, time is everywhere, time is constantly produced in every encounter between every kind of object, with or without one of them having a consciousness capable of producing delusions. Hence it is not an illusion. And this view of time could be true, I believe, whether or not string theory is.

    • I’m curious how time behaves in a supersaturated environment. Like in a gravitational field… wait Gen Relativity says that time slows down in high energy/mass fields!

      Or is it just the processes which slow down due to energy being diverted against the field?

      Time being everywhere, well oh boy I hate to do this… it’s there because you are there. If as I’m suggesting, time is an illusion because it is really a local phenomenon then… it would be everywhere you look.

      Maybe the cosmic background radiation is the time keeper that moves every atom?

      In either case, I am finding that 4 element system explains a lot when I have misgivings about this or that soundbite on the news. I sense objects are being missed by the rhetorical rather than logical choice of words.

      • Yes, time is a local phenomenon. That’s what I’m saying! But it’s not just for me, you and perhaps all conscious beings, but something experienced by all objects, even inimate ones. It’s everywhere, in the sense that it occurs in every encounter between objects, not (which is the whole point of Harmans discussion) in the sense that it is a neutral background dimension or continuum where everything takes place.

  10. Incidentally, I have an abstract numbering that I think is useful:

    0 – Nihilism
    1 – Solipsism
    2 – Materialism
    3 – Relativism
    4 – that “long” thing

    Marx gets 2.5, Rand gets 3.5

    One is faking it, the other tried to bootstrap her theories and collapsed the tent in the process.


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