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Instituted secrecy and withdrawing as a process

Been thinking about secrecy and withdrawal in the context of the Secret Life of Objects here in Rio. I presented my rhythm ontoscopy in my talk and talked a little bit about a secret life of rhythms. I also asked Richard Grusin, who talked after Antoine Hennion brought in Souriau's existential pluralism, whether in his MOO (Mediation-oriented ontology) there is space for withdrawal. Something like a withdrawn element in a mediation.

To be sure, secrecy could appear as a mode of existence. I make this point when presenting another ontoscopy in the book, that of fragments. I understand an ontoscopy - a manner in which things present themselves - is a lure for feeling. In the fragment ontoscopy a monadology is presented where monads exist in three different modes of existence - as in Souriau's pluralism - and where withdrawal is thought as world-bound. Monads exist as fragments, as compositions and as composers. They can be viewed qua these three things, pretty much like a substance or a number in Aristotle's metaphysics could be seen he different things (see this post from 2013). These multiple modes of existence enable the dynamics of withdrawing to be thought in terms other than that of a true substratum indifferent to all discernibility (to all qualities, relations or appearances). I quote some paragraphs of the book:

Harman conceives of objects as having secret lives, withdrawn not only from us but also from any other object. Reality for an object is to resist, to escape, and to withdraw. Objects supersede, they transcend. Harman talks about the fission and the fusion that together create something new from the tensions involving objects and their qualities.1 An object goes through fission into several sensual or real qualities. Interestingly, such fission is not in embryo in the object, which is always estranged from its qualities. These qualities then go through a fusion that establishes them and maintains them as objects. Fusion and fission express the internal contrast between real and sensual objects on the one hand and their qualities on the other. [...] Harman makes clear that it is tensions that bring together the four dimensions of an object – they are neither internal relations nor separations with incidental connections. He names them time, space, eidos and essence. The first is the tension between sensual objects and sensual qualities, the second between real objects and sensual qualities, the third between sensual objects and real qualities and the last between real objects and real qualities. They all have to do with a dynamic of unveiling and withdrawing.

This dynamic also appears in the articulations between the three existential poles of the monadology of fragments. The tension between fragment and composition is deployed in time; a composition is fusion of several fragments – the tension is expressed in the duration of the process of composition. The tension between composition and composer requires a distance in space, for just like the withdrawn real object, the composer is not disclosed by the forthcoming composition. The composer as such is not revealed in the composition – like Berkeley’s concept of the spirit, which doesn’t appear in the ideas available for perception, the composer is separated from the appearing composition. Finally, the tension between fragments and composers can be understood as something akin to Harman’s eidos. The composer makes the fragment as it is, but this again is not expressed in any fragment. The last tension in Harman’s quadruple structure, the one of essence, finds no immediate equivalent in the monadology of fragments. This is because there is no internal structure to the monads; they exist in three modes, and they are composed of further (existentially threefold) monads. To be sure, Harman himself asserts that the real object doesn’t possess his real qualities, for they are as external to it as its sensual qualities.1 In the monadology of fragments, there is no essence of a fragment, because there is no ultimate substratum to distinguish identity from indiscernibility.

Monads are worldly things, though there is some transcendence, because no monad in the world fully captures what a monad is – none can see beyond its field of vision, so to speak. Withdrawal, therefore, has to be worldly as well – what is withdrawn about a monad from any other monad is the composition associations it has with all the others. Each perspective opens up a blind spot. Because there is no view from nowhere, each monad always has something withdrawn from each of the others, but doesn’t hide the same secret from all of them. Its secret life comes not from inside, but rather from the (baroque) vastness of the intertwined connections. In a sense, the inner reclusion that takes place is not from the intimate chambers; it is instead from far away. This is an interesting displacement: withdrawal does not have to be thought of in terms of what is too hidden to be exposed, it can be simply what is too distant to be brought into focus.

The idea of a dynamic of withdrawal can be thought in terms of black boxes: mediation often work like black boxes (think of how one travels the world with a credit card, to use an example of Latour). In a black box, things are concealed in order to work as they work in the mode of existence that Latour called DC (Double Click) in this AIME project (the 2012 book). Yet they are not concealed for ever and in all of their mode of existence - they can be exposed in to an expert's eye and fully open while existing as, say, matter or material. Still, black boxes afford the experience of withdrawal - they are what they are because of what they conceal.

In the event, the open life of secrets and privacy was many times exposed. Wendy Chun (in line with others like Roberto Simanowski or Fernanda Bruno) talked about the open life of subjects talking about allegedly personal devices that are thoroughly surveilled and therefore work pretty much out in the open. Arguably they are in place partially at least to make accessible what is presented as private, personal or secret. When a device is sold as private, secrecy is constructed - sponsored, maintained. Constructed secrets are leaky devices, as Chun would say. If withdrawal is understood in terms of a construction, it can always come undone. When Heraclitus says that phusis loves to hide (Phusis kriptestai philei, DK 123) he's not saying that there are hidden things, he is pointing at a dynamic of concealing. Objects have a withdrawn elements to them because tensions are operating - and they are maintained, continuously being instituted.

In a more Whiteheadian line, mediations can be understood as actual occasions but also as prehensions. Prehensions are like perception, but they also include perception of the absent and not noticing the present. Prehensions are creative in their translation of something into something else - of actual entities into subjective forms. Prehensions can come up with things that are not present while concealing what is. Whitehead talks about avesion and adversion when he talks about conceptual prehensions: in the first, something that is physically prehended is eliminated while in the second something not physically prehended is included. It is a dynamic of concealing and revealing. The secret life of a mediation doesn't have to be about the withdrawn, it could just be about withdrawing.


  1. It would have been better for Harman's OOO to start with withdrawal, rather than starting from "naiveté" (objects) and then getting to withdrawal only after. But I think that this suggestion is faulty in that it still conserves the problem of primacy, only inverting it. Badiou's use of category theory is perhaps more satisfying as it posits the existence of partial orders where some elements are not included in that particular ordering without their being excluded (e.g. by repression), without their excluding themselves (e.g. by withdrawal). A second sense of withdrawal in his system is the case of where the value of the self-identity function in a particular world for a particular object is the minimum. The object is then absent (withdrawn) from this world as it is nonidentical with itself in this world, but could appear in other worlds.


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