The core of object-oriented-ontology (ooo) developed by Levi Bryant1 can be summed up by the formula from subject back to substance. And, in so far as subject is correlative with modernity (recall Lacan’s thesis about the Cartesian subject as the subject of modern science), we can also say that ooo follows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s famous book, We Were Never Modern—it endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment of the world. The Lacanian answer to this should be a paraphrase of his correction of the formula “god is dead” (god was always already dead, he just didn’t know it): we were always already modern (we just didn’t know it). The main target of ooo is thus not transcendental philosophy with its subject/object dualism, but modern science with its vision of “gray” reality reduced to mathematical formalization: ooo tries to supplement modern science with a premodern ontology which describes the “inner life” of things.
Bryant (who, before his engagement in ooo, was a Lacanian psychoanalyst) resorts to Lacan’s“formulas of sexuation” to articulate the basic difference between traditional (or modern) metaphysics and ooo: metaphysics follows the masculine side of universality grounded in a transcendent exception (god or subject who grounds or constitutes objective reality), while ooo follows the feminine side of nonall without exception (there is no transcendent exception, reality is composed of objects who are all on the same ontological level, and there is no way to totalize this multiverse of objects since they are withdrawn from each other, with no overreaching object to totalize them).2 This is why, when Bryant speaks about “the diference between ontologies of presence and transcendence and ontologies of immanence and withdrawal,”3 he couples the four concepts in an unexpected way: instead of bringing together immanence/presence and transcendence/withdrawal (which would be much closer to our spontaneous intuition: Is presence not by deﬁnition immanent, is transcendence not withdrawn from our reach?), he brings together presence and transcendence (the transcendent ground of being is fully self-present) plus immanence and withdrawal (there is no transcendent ground, all there is is the immanent multiverse of objects withdrawn from each other).
In his deployment of the ontology of immanence/withdrawal, Bryant begins by asserting the primacy of ontology over epistemology, and rejecting the modern subjectivist notion according to which, before we proceed to analyze the structure of reality, we should critically reﬂect upon our cognitive apparatus (how is our cognition possible in the ﬁrst place, what is its scope and limitation?). Following Roy Bhaskar, Bryant turns around the transcendental question: How does reality have to be structured so that our cognition of reality is possible? The answer is provided by the basic premise of ooo: “It is necessary to staunchly defend the autonomy of objects or substances, refusing any reduction of objects to their relations, whether these relations be relations to humans or other objects.”4 This is why there is no place for subject in Bryant’s ediﬁce: subject is precisely a nonsubstantial entity fully reducible to its relations to other entities.
From the Hegelian–Lacanian standpoint, the tension between the epistemological and ontological dimensions is resolved in a totally different way: the object is inaccessible, any attempt to seize it ends up in antinomies, and so on; we reach the object in itself not by somehow seeing through these epistemological distortions but by transposing epistemological obstacles into the thing itself. Quentin Meillassoux does the same with regard to the experience of facticity and/or absolute contingency: he transposes what appear to be transcendental partisans of ﬁnitude as the limitation of our knowledge (the insight that we can be totally wrong about our knowledge, that reality in itself can be totally different from our notion of it) into the most basic positive ontological property of reality itself—the absolute “is simply the capacity-to-be-other as such, as theorized by the agnostic. The absolute is the possible transition, devoid of reason, of my state toward any other state whatsoever. But this possibility is no longer a ‘possibility of ignorance,’ viz., a possibility that is merely the result of my inability to know . . . —rather, it is the knowledge of the very real possibility”5 in the heart of the In-itself:
We must show why thought, far from experiencing its intrinsic limits through facticity, experiences rather its knowledge of the absolute through facticity. We must grasp in fact not the inaccessibility of the absolute but the unveiling of the in-itself and the eternal property of what is, as opposed to the perennial deﬁciency in the thought of what is.6
In this way, “facticity will be revealed to be a knowledge of the absolute because we are going to put back into the thing itself what we mistakenly mistook to be an incapacity in thought. In other words, instead of construing the absence of reason inherent in everything as a limit that thought encounters in its search for the ultimate reason, we must understand that this absence of reason is, and can only be the ultimate property of the entity.”7 The paradox of this quasimagical reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological premise is that “it is through facticity, and through facticity alone, that we are able to make our way towards the absolute”:8 the radical contingency of reality, this “open possibility, this ‘everything is equally possible,’ is an absolute that cannot be de-absolutized without being thought as absolute once more.”9
Here, one should also establish a link with the great conﬂict about how to interpret indeterminacy in quantum physics: for the “orthodox” quantum physicists, this epistemological indeterminacy is simultaneously ontological, a property of “reality” itself which is “in itself ” indeterminate, while for those, from Einstein onwards, who persist in classical “realism-of-necessity,” the epistemological indeterminacy can only mean that quantum physics does not offer a complete description of reality; that is, that there are some hidden variables it does not take into account. To put it in a somewhat problematic and exaggerated way, the Einsteinian critics try to re-Kantianize quantum physics, excluding from its grasp reality In-itself.
Meillassoux is well aware that quantum physics, with its uncertainty principle and the assertion of the role the observer plays in the collapse of the wave function, seems to undermine the notion of objective reality independent of any observer and thus give an unexpected boost to Kantian transcendentalism. However, as he points out, their similarity is deceptive as it obfuscates a fundamental difference: “Certainly, the presence of an observer may eventually affect the effectuation of a physical law, as is the case for some of the laws of quantum physics—but the very fact that an observer can inﬂuence the law is itself a property of the law which is not supposed to depend upon the existence of an observer.”10 In short, while in Kant’s transcendentalism the “observer”-subject constitutes what he observes, in quantum physics, the observer’s active role itself is reinscribed into physical reality.
Bryant may appear to have performed this same move: Does he not assert repeatedly how the withdrawal of the object from the subject (i.e., the knowing or perceiving object) is simultaneously self-withdrawal, the self-splitting of the object, the withdrawal of the object with regard to itself? “Withdrawal is not an accidental feature of objects arising from our lack of direct access to them, but is a constitutive feature of all objects regardless of whether they relate to other objects.”11 Bryant draws here the parallel between this universal ontological structure of the “divided object” and the Lacanian divided/barred subject, concluding that “all objects are akin to Lacanian divided subjects, $”:
[N]o object ever actualizes the subterranean volcanic core with which its virtual proper being is haunted. This virtual domain is like a reserve or excess that never comes to presence. It is not simply that objects are, in themselves, fully actual and only withdrawn for other objects relating to them, but rather that objects are withdrawn in themselves.12
Bryant thus proposes a kind of universalized transcendental structure: each object (1) perceives other objects not the way they are in themselves but as interpreted through its own frame, and (2) this frame as such is also inaccessible, so that the object does not see what it does not see (i.e., what it does not see is akin to Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”). This pan-transcendentalism justiﬁes him to apply the Kantian term “transcendental illusion” to capture the way objects relate to one another:
The transcendental illusion thus generated by the manner in which objects relate to one another is one in which the states “experienced” by a system are treated as other objects themselves, rather than system-speciﬁc entities generated by the organization of the object itself. In other words, the object treats the world it “experiences” as reality impliciter, rather than as system-states produced by its own organization.13
Bryant applies this notion of the impenetrability of objects to the Lacanian topic of the impenetrability of the Other’s desire, to the enigma of Che vuoi?—what does the Other want from me beneath all that he says to me:
Desire, it could be said, embodies our non-knowledge with respect to the Other’s desire. Embodied in all intersubjective relations is the sense that despite the fact that we are being addressed by the Other, we nonetheless do not know why the Other is addressing us. Put differently, we do not know the desire that animates the Other’s relation to us. In this regard, the desire of the Other closely mirrors the phenomenon of operational closure with respect to systems. The Other perturbs us in a variety of ways, but we are unable to determine what intentions lie behind the Other’s interaction with us.14
In a further radicalization, Bryant includes in this series god himself (if he exists):
[E]very entity, up to and including God if God exists, is like a Lacanian divided or barred subject, $, such that, regardless of whether or not it is related to another entity, each entity is withdrawn with respect to itself. Put differently, no entity is fully self-present to itself, but rather every entity necessarily contains blind spots or is opaque to itself. Withdrawal here is the very structure of entities, not an accidental relation of how one entity relates to another entity.15
(Incidentally, such a notion of god who is opaque to himself was elaborated by Schelling, who wrote about the impenetrable ground of god, that which is in god more than god himself.) This vision of the nonall pluriverse in which “objects have no direct access to one another and that each object translates other objects with which it enters into nonrelational relations,”16 without any totalizing agent which would be fully self-present, is not limited to abstract ontological considerations: Bryant derives from it a series of pertinent political insights. One of the interesting implications of the notion of “democracy of objects,” of our reality as the multiverse of actants, is to render problematic the standard notion of “demystifying critique”:
An activist political theory that places all its apples in the basket of content is doomed to frustration insofar as it will continuously wonder why its critiques of ideology fail to produce their desired or intended social change. Moreover, in an age where we are faced with the looming threat of monumental climate change, it is irresponsible to draw our distinctions in such a way as to exclude nonhuman actors.17
Bryant provides here a convincing and pertinent example of ecology in our capitalist societies: why do all ideologico-critical calls fail to mobilize people, why is the large majority not ready to engage in serious action? If we take into account just the ideological discursive mechanisms, this failure becomes inexplicable and we have to invoke some deep processes of “ideological mystiﬁcation.” But what if we widen our focus and include other actants, other processes in social reality that inﬂuence our decisions, like biased media reports, economic pressures on workers (the threat of losing employment), and material limitations, so that the absence of engagement becomes much more understandable? One should also mention Jane Bennett’s description18 of how actants interact at a polluted trash site: how not only humans but also the rotting trash, worms, insects, abandoned machines, chemical poisons, and others each play their (never purely passive) role. There is an authentic theoretical and ethicopolitical insight in such an approach.
There is another twist which enables the ruling ideology to survive: its proper genius is discernible in how ideology’s obscene underside works. We are dealing here with what we may call the logic of inherent transgression: the affected subject, the asubject addressed by an ideological ediﬁce, does not take ideological injunctions seriously. He mocks them, dismisses them cynically, but this very “resistance” is in advance taken into account and serves the reproduction of the ideological ediﬁce. Sufﬁce it to mention two cases from communist regimes: political jokes were deﬁnitely a kind of “resistance” to the ruling ideology, but a “resistance” which generated obscene enjoyment that made accommodation much easier. Similarly, communist education miserably failed; instead of producing subjects dedicated to the building of Socialism, it produced cynics who distrusted politics and were prone to withdrew into private life, and who were as such ideal subjects of the communist regime.
It is at this level that we should also locate the phenomenon of misinterpellation elaborated by James Martel.19 Misinterpellation works in two directions—a subject recognizes him/herself in an interpellation that was not even effectively enunciated but just imagined by him/her, like the fundamentalist who recognizes himself in a call of god (however, one can argue that this case is universal—does the interpellated subject generally not imagine the big Other [god, country, . . .] which addresses him/her?), and a subject recognizes him/herself in an interpellation which did not target him, as in the well-known anecdote about how Che Guevara became minister of economy (at an inner circle meeting immediately after the victory of the revolution, Fidel asked “Is there an economist here among you?” and Che quickly replied “Yes!”, confusing “economist” with “Communist.”) A more pertinent example is here the interpellation of individuals into subjects of human rights: when black slaves in Haiti recognized themselves as the subjects of human rights declared by the French Revolution, they of course in some sense “missed the point”—the fact that, although universal in their form (“all men . . .”), human rights effectively privileged white men of property; however, this very “misreading” had explosive emancipatory consequences. This is what Hegel’s Cunning of Reason is about: Human Rights were “really meant” to be accepted only by white men of property, but their universal form was their truth. It was thus the ﬁrst interpellation which was wrong, but the true interpellation could only actualize itself through the false one, as its secondary misreading.
Bryant applies this model to ideology: we can effectively imagine ideology as an autopoietic system which encounters a problem when external perturbations became so strong that they cannot anymore be interpreted within its framework—say, the situation in Russia in early 1917 was such that it was no longer possible for the ruling ideology to integrate (or to account for in its terms) the “external” (nondiscursive) perturbations (the costs of war which was more and more perceived as meaningless; the dissatisfaction of peasants without land). The Bolsheviks imposed a totally different ideological frame which succeeded in integrating and accounting for these prediscursive perturbations. Hitler succeeded in a similar way in early 1930s, imposing a new ideological framework which accounted for nonideological perturbations that affected Germany at that time (economic crisis, moral disintegration, etc.). The lesson of these examples is that although one should include into analysis external (transideological) perturbations, the crucial factor is how these perturbations will be accounted for (symbolized) by an ideological ediﬁce. In the struggle in Germany, Hitler won over the alternate communist reading of the crisis; his victory was, of course, also a product of extraideological factors (the brute state force was mostly supporting him; he had much more access to ﬁnancial resources, for example), the crucial moment was achieving ideological hegemony.
Why does ooo ignore the key role of this “totalizing” symbolic gesture, of what Lacan called “quilting point”? For Bryant, each autopoietic system is self-enclosed in the sense that it selectively interprets external perturbations, so that the In-itself remains its inaccessible blind spot: however, in the case of subject, this structure is different, the blind spot is not simply the mark of the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself, but the inscription of the perceiving subject itself into reality—the hole in reality is not simply the excess of the In-itself. But is this not also the claim of ooo? Does ooo not emphasize that an organism is doubly limited: objects that affect it are inaccessible in their transcendent core, plus the very interpretive frame which constrains the approach to objects is inaccessible as such? It is not only that there are aspects of objects that I do not see, I also do not see what I do not see; that is, I am unaware of the very limit that separates what I can see from what I cannot see:
Because information is premised on a prior distinction that allows events in the environment to take on information value, it follows that systems, in their relation to other objects, always contain blind spots. What we get here is a sort of object-speciﬁc transcendental illusion produced as a result of its closure. As Luhmann remarks in Ecological Communication, “one could say that a system can see only what it can see. It cannot see what it cannot. Moreover, it cannot see that it cannot see this. For the system this is something concealed ‘behind’ the horizon that, for it, has no ‘behind.’” If systems can only see what they can see, cannot see what they cannot see, and cannot see that they cannot see this, then this is because any relation to the world is premised on system-speciﬁc distinctions that arise from the system itself. As a consequence of this, Luhmann elsewhere remarks that “[t]he conclusion to be drawn from this is that the connection with the reality of the external world is established by the blind spot of the cognitive operation. Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it.”20
The last sentence effectively sounds like a variation of Lacan’s motif of the Real as impossible. However, it is precisely this apparent proximity which enables us to draw a sharp line of distinction. In ooo, the distinction is the one between an object’s virtual inner essence (what Harman calls its “volcanic core”) and its qualities actualized in the object’s relation to other objects. Let us imagine a brand new electric shaving machine which by mistake falls into a manhole and is left there to disintegrate slowly. Its potential to shave would remain a purely virtual property of the object in itself, never actualized in a relation to other objects. One can, of course, argue that such examples are weak: the property to shave did depend on the machine’s relations with other objects since it was produced for that purpose. But the main point is that this division is still a division between something and something—between the relational appearing and the inaccessible “volcanic core” of an object—so in what sense can it be said that it implies the self-withdrawal of the object, not just the withdrawal of its virtual core for other objects which interact with it? In some (very imprecise) sense, it can be said that the object’s inner virtual“volcanic core” is withdrawn from the surface of its relations to other objects, but this inner core is still fully there, not withdrawn from itself in any sense. Such self-withdrawal is only compatible with the self-division of the Freudian subject if we conceive of this latter division as the division between the surface of the conscious subject’s self-awareness (what we call “Self”) and the substantial “depth” of the subject’s unconscious traumas, desires, and so on. If there is a self-withdrawal, there has to be a Self from which its own substance is withdrawn—and one cannot in any meaningful sense call the actual relations of an object to other object this object’s Self.
How, then, are we to read the passage from Luhmann quoted by Bryant? “The connection with the reality of the external world is established by the blind spot of the cognitive operation. Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it.” It can be read in the standard ooo way: reality In-itself is the inaccessible virtual core of objects, and it is in this sense the blind spot of our seeing, what we do not see in what we see. Or we can read it in a more complex Lacanian way and discern in it an additional reﬂexive twist: the Real is not the In-itself of objects beyond our perceptive reach, it resides in the very “subjective excess” which distorts our access to reality.
The main trap to be avoided apropos the Lacanian Real is to “Kantianize” it, that is, to read the Lacanian distinction between the Real and reality as a new version of Kant’s distinction between the noumenal Thing-in-itself and the phenomenal reality. When, in his seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan dwells on the subtle difference between Ding and Sache in German,21 he resists the obvious solution that Ding is a brutal raw Real outside of or preceding the Symbolic, while Sache is already a thing symbolized, the matter that is to be debated (this is why we talk of die Sache des Denkens, a “matter of thought,” not of das Ding des Denkens). While conceding that die Sache is a symbolically mediated thing, “the work of all and everyone,” not the thing-in-itself, independent of us, but the “thing itself,” what we are all struggling with, he adds that das Ding is (in one of its original meanings, at least) even more “social” than die Sache: it names the assembly itself, the gathering of those set to debate die Sache. In Iceland, for example, parliament is called Allthing (“the gathering of all”), in remembrance of the ancient yearly gatherings of the representatives of all groups in order to debate and make key decisions about their communal life. So we should not oppose Ding and Sache as real and symbolic, or Ding and objet a as the Real which is totally external and prior to the Symbolic (to human community) versus what remains of the once the symbolic universe is here (objet a as the remainder of the process of the symbolization of the Real), as the Real which is externally internal to the Symbolic. Consequently, we should also not oppose das Ding and inner-worldly things of external reality (“real things out there”) as the Real radically external to the Symbolic, radically outside the scope and grasp of our unconscious desires and fantasies, and the Real which is already symbolized, structured and perceived through a network of symbolic determinations, as well as libidinally invested. For Lacan, the Real qua das Ding is not only deﬁnitely not the same as reality-in-itself, things out there independently of us, with no relation to us; das Ding is, on the contrary, a weird thing whose status is thoroughly libidinal. It is a purely fantasmatic notion of the absolute-incestuous object that would fully satisfy our desire or that would bring full jouissance. (This is why Lacan says that the ultimate Ding is mother.) In other words, das Ding as radically external to the Symbolic is simultaneously radically internal to it; it is a specter of absolute Otherness generated by the distance from the Real introduced by the Symbolic. The only things “out there” independently of us are particular material things (if we can construct how they are independently of us); das Ding as the absolute point of reference behind and beneath these things is precisely what the subject adds to things, its fantasmatic projection/construction.
So, again, why does ooo ignore this reﬂexive twist? According to the ﬂat ontology proposed by Bryant, all objects are situated on the same plane, possessing the same reality; however, language and a process in material reality are not at the same level, there is no point of direct contact between the two. While language “mirrors” the entire reality, it is constrained by its own horizon, by what is visible from within this horizon, so that when we are inside, we don’t see this limitation, we don’t see the outside. But does this not hold for every object, does not every object perceive (relate to) its environs in a selective way, from within a constraining frame? So where is the misunderstanding of ooo’s critique of Lacan, of Lacan’s alleged unjustiﬁed privileging of the symbolic as the ultimate generator and horizon of our experience of reality?
To put it succinctly, ooo reads the privilege of the symbolic asserted by Lacan as a form of transcendental exception: everything in language comes from contingent empirical sources, everything except the form of language itself. There are good reasons to read Lacan in this way. Lacan fully assumes the fact that every language is embedded in a particular life world and is as such traversed by its traces: language is not a neutral transcendental frame of reality; it is fully penetrated/distorted by contingent historical forces, antagonisms, desires, which forever twist and pervert its purity.
Recall Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Language in General and Human Language in Particular,” in which the point is not that human language is a species of some universal language “as such” which also comprises other species: there is no actually existing language other than human language, but, in order to comprehend this “particular” language, one has to introduce a minimal difference, conceiving it with regard to the gap which separates it from language “as such.” The particular language is thus the “really existing language,” language as the series of actually uttered statements, in contrast to the formal linguistic structure. This Benjaminian lesson is missed by Habermas, who does precisely what one should not do—he posits the ideal “language in general” (pragmatic universals) directly as the norm of the actually existing language. Along the lines of Benjamin’s title, we should describe the basic constellation of the social law as that of the “Law in general and its obscene superego underside in particular.” The “Part” as such is thus the “sinful” unredeemed and unredeemable aspect of the Universal—in concrete political terms, every politics that grounds itself in a reference to some substantial (ethnic, religious, sexual, lifestyle, etc.) particularity is by deﬁnition reactionary.
This, however, is not all—and we should give to this “not all” all the weight of the Lacanian pas-tout. The fact that not-all of language is traversed by social antagonisms, scarred by traces of social pathology, does not mean that there is an exception, an aspect of language (in this case, its form) which cannot be reduced to social reality and its antagonisms since it provides the a priori frame through which we relate to reality. It is precisely because there is nothing which escapes social mediation that nonall of language is socially mediated: what escapes social mediation is not something exempted from it but the meta-transcendental social mediation of the very linguistic frame through which we perceive and relate to reality. When we conceive language as a mirror which is always already distorted/ traversed by the pathology of social antagonisms, we ignore the way this mirror is itself included into reality as a mode of its distortion. Language is not only traversed by antagonisms/traumas—the supreme trauma is that of language itself, of how language brutally destabilizes the real. The same goes for individual’s relation to language: we usually take a subject’s speech with all its inconsistencies as an expression of his/her inner turmoil, ambiguous emotions, and so on. This holds even for a literary work of art: the task of psychoanalytic reading is supposed to be to unearth the inner psychic turmoil which found its coded expression therein. Something is missing in such a classic account: speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact (“symbolic castration”). What this means is that we should include into the list of traumas speech tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself. The relationship between psychic turmoil and its expression in speech should thus also be turned around: speech does not simply express/ articulate psychic turmoil; at a certain key point, psychic turmoil itself is a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the “torture-house of language.”
It is in this sense that the nonall of language is traversed by social antagonisms: language is not only a medium exposed to social (and sexual and . . .) antagonisms, one has to include the way language itself is antagonistic in its very form; this supplement makes the totality not-all, inconsistent. Or, to put it in another way: one cannot include language into reality since what appears to us as reality is already transcendentally constituted through a horizon of meaning sustained by language. We have to introduce here the distinction between the transcendentally constituted phenomenal reality and the Real: the way to be a consequent materialist is not to directly include subject into reality, as an object among objects, but to bring out the Real of the subject, the way the emergence of subjectivity functions as a cut in the Real.
And this, ﬁnally, brings us back at our starting point, to the relationship between subject and substance. Subject is not a substance which withdraws/appears; subject is appearance (appearing-to-itself) which autonomizes itself and becomes an agent against its own substantiality. The subject’s self-withdrawal or split is thus much more radical than the self-withdrawal of every object split between its appearance (in interaction with other objects) and its substantial content, its withdrawn In-itself: subject is not just split like every object between its phenomenal qualities (actualizations) and its inaccessible virtual In-itself; subject is divided between its appearance and the void in the core of its being, not between appearance and its hidden substantial ground. It is only against this background that one can understand in what sense subject effectively “is” an object. This, then, is the Lacanian answer to the object-oriented-ontology: yes, subject is also an object, but which object? The object that subject “is” is what Lacan calls objet a, a strange object which is not only lacking, never fully here, always eluding the subject, but is in itself nothing but the embodiment of a lack. That is to say, since subject is the self-appearing of nothing, its “objective correlate” can only be a weird object whose nature is to be the embodiment of nothing, an “impossible” object, an object the entire being of which is an embodiment of its own impossibility, the object called by Lacan objet a, an object whose status is that of an anamorphosis: a part of the picture which, when we look at the picture in a direct frontal way, appears as a meaningless stain, acquires the contours of a known object when we change our position and look at the picture from aside. Lacan’s point is even more radical: the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void. It acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways. The most beautiful case of it in literature occurs when, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Bushy tries to comfort the Queen, worried about the unfortunate King on a military campaign:
“Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not.”
This is objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself “nothing but confusion,” and which acquires a deﬁnite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears—as such, as a mere “shadow of what it is not.” Objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the ﬁeld of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this ﬁeld is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire. The extraordinarily modern deﬁnition of poetry from Midsummer Night’s Dream, V/1, points in the same direction:
“The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in ﬁne frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
Indeed, as Mallarme put it centuries later, poetry talks about “ce seul objet don’t le Neant s’honore.” Shakespeare deploys here a triad: a madman sees devils everywhere (misperceives a bush as a bear); a lover sees sublime beauty in an ordinary face; a poet “gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” In all three cases we have the gap between ordinary reality and a transcendent ethereal dimension, but this gap is gradually reduced: the madman simply misperceives a real object as something else, not seeing it as what it is (a bush is perceived as a threatening bear); a lover maintains the reality of the beloved object, which is not canceled, but merely “transubstantiated” into the appearance of a sublime dimension (the beloved’s ordinary face is perceived as it is, but it is as such elevated—I see beauty in it, as it is); with a poet, transcendence is reduced to zero, that is, empirical reality is “transubstantiated” (not into an expression/materialization of some higher reality, but) into a materialization of nothing. A madman directly sees god, he mistakes a person for god (or Devil); a lover sees god (divine beauty) in a person; a poet only sees a person against the background of Nothingness.
How is such an entity which functions as the appearance of nothing to itself possible? The answer is clear—such a nonsubstantial entity has to be purely relational, with no positive support of its own. What happens in the passage from substance to subject is thus a kind of reﬂective reversal: we pass from the secret core of an object inaccessible to other objects to inaccessibility as such—$ is nothing but its own inaccessibility, its own failure to be substance. Therein resides Lacan’s achievement: the standard psychoanalytic theory conceives the Unconscious as a psychic substance of subjectivity (the notorious hidden part of the iceberg)—all the depth of desires, fantasies, traumas, and so on—while Lacan de-substantializes the Unconscious (for him, the Cartesian cogito is the Freudian subject), thereby bringing psychoanalysis to the level of modern subjectivity. (It is here that we should bear in mind the difference between the Freudian Unconscious and the “unconscious” neurological brain processes: the latter do form the subject’s natural “substance,” that is, subject only exists in so far as it is sustained by its biological substance; however, this substance is not subject.)
Subject is not somehow more actant than objects, a mega-actant actively positing all the world of fundamentally passive objects, so that against this hubris one should assert the active role of all objects. Subject is at its most fundamental level a certain gesture of passivization, of not-doing, of withdrawal, of passive experience. Subject is “ce que du reel patit du signiﬁant” (Lacan), its activity a reaction to this basic feature. So it is not that ooo does take into account subjectivity, merely reducing it to a property/quality of one among other objects: what ooo describes as subject simply does not meet the criteria of subject—there is no place for subject in ooo.
Here we encounter the mistake of Althusser and others who reduce subject to the imaginary illusion of self-recognition—the idea is that “subject” is an effect of imaginary misrecognition, of a short-circuit which gives rise to the illusory self-experience as a free autonomous agent, obfuscating the complex presubjective (neuronal or discursive) processes which generate this illusion. The task of the theory of subjectivity is then to describe these processes, as well as to outline how one can break out of the imaginary circle of subjectivity and confront the presubjective process of subjectivization. The Hegelian (and Lacanian) counter-argument is here that “subjectivization” (the formation of the subjective space of meaning) effectively is grounded in an closure of the circle of self-recognition, in an imaginary obfuscation of a traumatic Real, of the wound of antagonism. However, this “wound,” this trauma, this cut in/of the real, is the subject itself at its zero-level, so that, to paraphrase the famous line from Wagner’s Parsifal, the subject is itself the wound it tries to heal (note that Hegel says the same about spirit). This “absolute contradiction,” this radical coincidence of the opposites (the “wound of nature,” the loss of “organic unity,” and simultaneously the very activity to heal this wound by way of constructing a universe of meaning; the production of sense with a traumatic core of nonsense; the point of absolute singularity [of the “I” excluding all substantial content] in which universality comes to itself, is “posited” as such) is what deﬁnes and constitutes subjectivity. One of Hegel’s names for this abyss of subjectivity that he takes from the mystic tradition is the “night of the world,” the withdrawal of the Self from the world of entities into the void that “is” the core of the Self, and it is crucial to notice how in this gesture of self-withdrawal (in clinical terms: the disintegration of all “world,” of all universe of meaning), extreme closure and extreme openness, extreme passivity and extreme activity, overlap. In the “night of the world,” extreme self-withdrawal, cutting of the links with reality around us, overlaps with our extreme openness to reality: we drop all symbolic screens which ﬁlter our access to reality, all protective shields, and we risk a kind of total exposure to the disgust of the Real. As to its content, it is a position of radical passivity (of a Kantian transcendental subject suspending its constitution of reality), but as to its form, it is a position of radical activity, of violently tearing oneself out of the immersion into reality: I am utterly passive, but my passive position is grounded in my withdrawal from reality, in a gesture of extreme negativity.
It is in this sense that the “democracy of objects” in which subjects are conceived as one among the objects-actants obfuscates the Real of subjects, the cut that IS the Real. And the crucial point to be noted here is that every direct access to “subjectless objects” which ignores or bypasses this cut/wound that “is” the subject already has to rely on transcendental constitution: what it describes is a pluriverse of actants is formed by a certain transcendental vision of reality. In other words, the problem with subjectless objects is not that they are too objective, neglecting the role of subject, but that what they describe as subjectless world of objects is too subjective, already within an unproblematized transcendental horizon. We do not reach the In-itself by way of tearing away subjective appearances and trying to isolate “objective reality” as it is “out there,” independently of the subject; the In-itself inscribes itself precisely into the subjective excess, gap, inconsistency that opens up a hole in reality. This gap is missed both by ooo and by transcendentalism in all its contemporary versions, from Heidegger to Habermas: although the two are big opponents, they both retain the transcendental horizon (the historical disclosure of being in Heidegger, the a priori of symbolic communication) as the ultimate horizon of our thinking.
- See Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011). Bryant reads ooo as object-oriented onticology (to distinguish it from metaphysical ontology).
- A somewhat simplistic transcendental argument against ooo would have been: Where does Bryant speak from when he elaborates his onticology? If all objects are autopoietically constrained, is then his own description of the pluriverse of objects not also constrained by the system-speciﬁc perspective proper to human objects?
- Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, 269.
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 56.
- Ibid., p. 52.
- Ibid., p. 53.
- Ibid., p. 63.
- Ibid., p. 58.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, p. 32.
- Ibid., pp. 281–282.
- Ibid., p. 160.
- Ibid., p. 187. There is another option here: even if communication is interpre- tation, so that the explicit message that circulates and is interpreted by the receiver is always a distortion of what the sender really meant, what if the explicit message is more important than its withdrawn core, what if there is more truth in miscommunication than in what is withdrawn? Imagine a dia- logue between a Chinese and a US capitalist manager: undoubtedly each of them will miss the culturally speciﬁc background of the other’s message— however, this background is irrelevant with regard to what is at stake in this communication (the exchange of commodities will go on smoothly in spite of this continuing miscommunication).
- Ibid., p. 265.
- Ibid., p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
- As to this notion, see James Martel, “A Misinterpellated Messiah,” Paper pre- sented at The Actuality of the Theologico-Political, Birkbeck College, London, May 24, http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7958
- Ibid., p. 160.
- Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 44.
Text copied without authorization from Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism
Slavoj Žižek: A Critique of Object Oriented Ontology and New Materialism (lecture)