*[Update, Levi has written a recent post that is relevant for this post, discussing how objects act and the actual and virtual dimensions of objects, read here]

I have recently been thinking about what political praxis object-oriented philosophy (herein after OOP) can offer political analysis. In conjunction, I have been thinking about the differences between how an object is defined from reading Levi Byrant, Graham Harman, and Steven Shaviro. In the following post I want to focus on Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead’s “eternal objects’ in his book Without Criteria and his post (here). The aim is to defend an OOP that argues objects are both actual and virtual.

One of the main debates within OOP is between actualists (Harman) and virtualists (Byrant & Shaviro). My reading of the debate concerns if an object-oriented ontology requires a virtual dimension. Criticism of OOP arguing for a virtual dimension seems to put forward the argument that virtualists limit an object to what is possible. However, it seems that this confuses the difference between possible and potential. For an object-oriented philosopher of the virtual, the virtual is a crucial (and real) ontological dimension that enables one to contemplate how an object is not reducible or exhausted by its actual existence. In other words, any ontology that includes a virtual dimension attempts to account for potentiality.

Following Deleuze, Shaviro asserts that we should not differentiate between the virtual and the real, ‘the virtual…is altogether real in its own right…it is just that this reality is not actual. The virtual is like a field of energies that have not yet been expended, or a reservoir of potentialities that have not yet been tapped’ (Without Criteria, p35). As a reservoir of potentials, there are processes of actualisation, when certain potentials of the virtual are actualised. However, actualisations of the virtual do not exhaust the potential of the virtual. Shaviro is aware that Whitehead never uses the word virtual, but does argue that Whitehead’s distinction between the actual and the potential resembles the Deleuzian distinction between the actual and the virtual (Without Criteria, p37). Therefore, for Whitehead the potential is a real (virtual) ontological dimension of the world that needs to be acknowledged. We cannot only focus on actual identities (although actualists will contend this point).

We may then ask what Whitehead claim composes the virtual/potential aspect of his ontology. One answer is that the virtual is a composition of eternal objects. As Shaviro notes, ‘alongside events or actual entities, Whitehead also posits what he calls “eternal objects.” These are “Pure Potentials.” Shaviro defines Whitehead’s eternal objects in the following:

“’any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is a called an ‘eternal object’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality). This means that eternal objects include sensory qualities, like colors (blueness or greenness) and tactile sensations (softness or roughness), conceptual abstractions like shapes (a helix, or a dodecahedron)…eternal objects are ideal abstractions that nevertheless (in contrast to Platonic forms) can only be encountered within experience, when they are ‘selected’ and ‘felt’ by particular actual occasions” (Without Criteria, p39)

At least two things are noteworthy about eternal objects. First eternal objects are virtual, but nevertheless real. Second, eternal objects are actualised in particular occasions, but are not reducible to these particular local actualisations. To understand why eternal objects are virtual and not reducible to their local manifestations in particular point in time, it is necessary to regard eternal objects as neutral and indifferent:

“’Eternal objects ‘involve in their own natures indecision’ and ‘indetermination’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality); they always imply alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise. This patch of wall is yellow, but it might have been blue. This means that their role is essentially passive…You might say that yellowness  ‘in itself’, understood as a pure potentiality, is utterly indifferent to the actual yellow color on this particular patch of wall…Eternal objects, like Deleuze’s quasi-causes, are neutral, sterile, and inefficacious, as powerless as they are indifferent” (Without Criteria, p41)

There seems an important argument that eternal objects need to be thought of as neutral. At one level, the neutrality ought to mean that the virtuality of eternal objects is not reduced to local or particular manifestations. In other words, we need to be careful about equating the virtual with the actual. In terms of thinking ‘yellowness’ as both an eternal object with particular manifestations it seems unproblematic. Therefore, the book that sits in front of me with a yellow cover does not exhaust the potentiality of ‘yellowness’ as an eternal object. However, it is perhaps worth considering if the neutrality of eternal objects has any significance for an OOP political analysis. We can maybe draw the political significance of eternal objects from a (re)reading of Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish. [I have also selected this example to provocatively suggest Foucault has the potential to be read as a type of object-oriented philosopher].

It might seem odd to (re)read Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon as an example of discussing an ‘eternal object.’ At one level, Foucault is examining the physical attributes and design of a particular building. Foucault’s fascination with Bentham’s Panopticon is that the design of the building allows an observer a fixed central position that makes it possible to gaze upon those people confined within the Panopticon. The result is that Foucault is able to consider how the Panopticon functions as a form of disciplinary power that produces the subjectivity of those confined. One of Foucault’s main findings is that as a form of imprisonment, the Panopticon differs from a dungeon as ‘full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is the trap’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p200). However, Foucault is aware that merely focusing on the Panopticon as a means of imprisoning delinquents is in itself a limitation. We could suggest that this type of analysis of analysis is too empirical and remains at the level of actual objects. In other words, it fails to conceive of the Panopticon as a (Deleuzian) virtual idea or (Whiteheadian) eternal object. Indeed, Foucault is aware that the potentiality of the Panopticon is more than particular local manifestations of a Panopticon. Foucault writes that the Panopticon ‘is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars into to work (Discipline and Punish, p205). In other words, the Panopticon as an eternal object is not reducible to those experiences that actualise a manifestation of panopticism, and Foucault warns that the Panopticon ‘is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use’ (Discipline and Punish, p205). In order to detach the Panopticon from any specific manifestation there requires the need to conceptualise as an ‘eternal object’ or what Deleuze and Guattari would refer to as an abstract machine. The effect is that a Panopticon is both virtual and actual.

One other issue needs addressed. Whitehead and Shaviro both understand eternal objects as ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’ to their manifestations in particular occasions, and it seems strange to claim that Panopticon – as an eternal object – is ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’. Indeed the Panopticon seems overtly political and not neutral. Yet such a criticism I would suggest would be too concerned with the particular and actual uses of panopticism in our actual experience. As an eternal object the Panopticon is indeed ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’, we need only think that particular manifestations of the Panopticon could be used from different and antagonistic political ideologies (Fascism, Liberalism, Socialism). Therefore, as an eternal object, panopticism is indifferent to particular manifestations and is not exhausted from these previous manifestations.

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