Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

Are objects unities?  Identities?  Or, on the other hand, are they multiplicities?  This question is answered in different ways in different kinds of object-oriented ontology.  Object-oriented philosophy (represented by Graham Harman) is more focused on unities and identities, whereas onticology (represented by Levi Bryant) prefers multiplicities.  Consider Bryant’s remarks in a recent post:

While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities.  No, they are multiplicities.  The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. […]  Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy.  [….]  The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity.  Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities.

Bryant brings up Leibniz and Deleuze/Guattari to elaborate on this point.  An important aspect of Bryant’s position is that objects are wholes and those wholes are parts amidst other parts.  Similarly, when the object-oriented philosopher (Harman, to be specific) affirms the identity of objects, it is not to privilege the whole as opposed to parts.  In short, object-oriented philosophy and onticology both avoid simple whole-part oppositions in their respective definitions of objects.  However, the question or unity or multiplicity nevertheless divides these two approaches to OOO.  Accordingly, Harman (mentioning Deleuze but not Bryant) recently made the following comments about the unity-multiplicity conflict in light of his own call for more attention to Aristotle (in contrast to Žižek’s call for more Hegel).

[A]s long as it remains fashionable to take easy cheap shots at unity and identity with appeals to such concepts as “difference” and “multiplicity,” then you’ll know that we’re still running on the fumes of Generation Deleuze, which was fresh and liberating from around 1995-2007 but now threatens to become last night’s vinegary red wine.

In other words, Harman appreciates Aristotle (as well as Husserl) for positing a unity and identity of objects, and he thinks that the Deleuzian distaste for unity and identity is getting stale.  Harman isn’t dismissing everyone working with Deleuze, he’s “just saying that it’s time to stop adopting all of Deleuze’s heroes and spitting on all of his villains.”  I assume that Harman wouldn’t consider Bryant’s appeal to “multiplicity” as one of the “easy cheap shots” being taken at unity and identity.  It is a shot nonetheless.

I’m not taking sides yet.  I’m just paying attention as object-oriented philosophy and onticology continue developing.  It is nourishing food for thought.  I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Deleuze, and this question of unity versus multiplicity makes me want to read, re-read, and rethink.


5 responses to “Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

  • Adam Robbert

    I was a bit confused by this exchange given that, in my understanding at least, the objects of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy are split (along one axis) between being a unity as a self-contained object and a multiplicity of the smaller objects internal to it (objects wrapped in objects). I was very attracted to the pluralism of this identity/multiplicity distinction — very ecological I think — and so am a bit confused by the arguments so far.

    I tend to go with Whitehead here and think that, though societies are multiplicities of actual occasions, the society nevertheless has a unified character (a subjective aim) that gives it a specific identity. Though I’m wondering here if maybe we should also be making distinctions between ‘nexus’ and ‘societies’ where the nexus (or ‘aggregate’) tends to be more of a multiplicity and the society tends to be more of a unity.

    • sam

      The distinction is clarified by Bryant’s citation of D&G, who claim that the unity of parts does not unify the parts but is “added” as “a new part fabricated separately” (and Bryant adds emphasis to “added”). Harman’s unity does not necessarily precede the object (which Bryant claims is the “central error to be avoided”), but it is not exactly “added.” I think Harman’s unity is already there, withdrawn rather than added. Whitehead would seem closer to Deleue and Bryant, since the creative advance is a matter of unity added onto multiplicity (“the many become one and are increased by one”). In any case, both Harman and Bryant affirm some kind of complex or reciprocal determination of wholes and parts, but Bryant seems to claim that his position is less phallocentric.

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