I wonder if there’s potential

I’m drafting v 2 of JPEG: The Quadruple Object and have been revisiting the concept of potentiality and objects, notably Levi Bryant’s debate with Graham Harman. This is the latest musing… if anyone can see any great glaring holes, mis-representations or even molten cores worth expanding…

Levi Bryant, a strong advocate of objects as the starting point for philosophy has questioned Harman’s rejection of potential, his insistence that objects hold nothing back. He says:

“it would be a mistake to conflate [..] potentiality with the concept of a potential object. A potential object is an object that does not exist but which could come to exist. By contrast, the virtual is strictly a part of a real and existing object. The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations” (Bryant 2011, p. 95).

Objects do not somehow already contain what they will become but they do contain powers that can be actualised. He frames this in terms of a split [1] within objects  which is very different to that of Harman, one that relies on a Deleuzian account of the ‘virtual’[2]:

“When I speak of objects as split I am primarily speaking of objects as split between their powers or capacities and their actuality, manifestation, or qualities. It is necessary, I hold, that it be possible and common – even ubiquitous – that objects be “out of phase” with their qualities. That is, an essential feature of any object is that 1) an object can be active without manifesting certain actualities (it can be, as it were, veiled), 2) objects can be dormant or, as Graham nicely puts it, “asleep”, such that they don’t manifest any actualities at all, and 3) objects always have the power to manifest other actualities that aren’t manifested at the moment when entering into diffferent (sic) circumstances” (Bryant 2010 ).

It is with his third point that Bryant diverges from and critiques Harman. For Bryant  the idea that objects harbour potential to be actualised, rather than being already actual, is necessary to OOP (or “object-oriented onticology” as Bryant calls it) because it allows an object-oriented account of relations and of change. Actuality is not a given (as Bryant believes that Harman holds) but rather a product of relations. Bryant says: “the process of actualization requires the navigation and translation of exo-relations to other objects, creating a new product as a result. In short, the actuality is not there at the outset but requires a whole series of mediations to come to be” (2010) [3]. Agreeing with Harman that objects are actual, real and specific, he argues however that this actuality appears as relations unfold and those relations unfold because objects have powers ‘coiled within’, a virtual dimension. That ‘virtual’: “always belongs to a substance, not the reverse. Moreover, the virtual is always the potential harboured or carried by a discrete or individual being” (Bryant 2011, p. 105). This is an object-oriented potential. The potentiality is not outside or somehow contextual but built into the heart of objects, allowing new relations and so change. Harman’s refusal to entertain potential, Bryant argues, can’t account for change  (2011, p. 68). Here he is not joining the Whitehead-derived perspective presented above where change is a matter of ‘becoming’ or fluxion. Rather for Bryant change is a matter of objects. It can be addressed at the scale of objects but only if those objects carry within themselves a potentiality [4]. This is not the fabled acorn containing the oak tree. Bryant says: “there is no resemblance between a power, potentiality, or potency, and the actuality that it comes to actualize. Potentiality, power, potency is pure capacity, pure “can-do”, pure ability. As such, it tells us nothing of the form that the actualized power will take when it becomes a quality or what I call a local manifestation” (2011).

Harman, as we have seen however, says he is an “unapologetic ‘actualist’” (Harman 2011]). “Entities are nothing more than what they are right now” (Harman 2011). He reads any attempt to introduce a virtual dimension, a ‘coiled within’ potentiality as a retreat from the scale of objects.

“The recourse to potentiality is a dodge that leaves actuality undetermined and finally un-interesting; it reduces what is currently actual to the transient costume of an emergent process across time, and makes the real work happen outside actuality itself. The same holds true if we replace ‘the potential’ with ‘the virtual’, notwithstanding their differences. In both cases, concrete actors them- selves are deemed insufficient for the labour of the world and are indentured to hidden overlords: whether they be potential, virtual, veiled, topological, fluxional, or any adjective that tries to escape from what is actually here right now” (Harman 2009, p. 129) [5].

Bryant’s object-oriented potentiality offers a lot to our understanding of JPEG. Bryant would argue that by seeing protocol as fully real and specific but also carrying potentiality coiled within enables us to see  clearly how a standard achieves a form of ‘lock-in’ (Liebowitz, & Margolis 1995). JPEG’s hegemony within distributed imaging can be seen as a result of a potential to connect, to relate, to set new practices, business and technologies in motion. Acting almost as an API [6], JPEG’s coiled potential as a governmental and imag(in)ing actant within its specific substance was actualised as Facebook and browsers and apps developed on and with it. That governmental potential was always there, but not as the fabled oak tree within the acorn, as a fixed, determined thing.

Harman’s framework however still allows for a mapping of that lock-in and governmental mesh but arguably demands that we address JPEG as it exists and works here right now (and here right now, and here right now). The connection between JPEG and the Social Graph is not a once-and-for-all thing. It is continually remade as new tensions are fused and broken, new objects (Likes, Social Graph connections, new software services on top of an API, new state searches etc) become the site of those connections. Harman’s perspective not only forces that particularity but also  draws attention to those new objects.


1 Bryant explicitly connects this idea of the split to Lacanian thought (Bryant 2011a).

2 Bryant is more comfortable with Deleuze than Harman arguing: “No one has explored this anterior side of substance—in the transcendental, not the temporal, sense—more profoundly than Gilles Deleuze” (Bryant 2011, p. 53). Harman, meanwhile says: “”Recall that there is no such thing for Latour as a ‘becoming’ that would exceed individual actors. Nor is there any ‘virtuality’ that exceeds them, just as potentiality does not not exceed them. The much-discussed difference between potential and virtual, so often wielded like a billy club in our time by Deleuzian hooligans, is irrelevant here – both terms fail Latour’s standard of concreteness in exactly the same way” (Harman 2009, p. 101). It is not my concern here to engage with their respective readings or misreadings of Delueze and debates around the potential and the virtual (Bryant 2011, pp. 58-64; Bryant 2011a; Harman 2010) but rather to address how Bryant argues that Harman’s rejection of potential undermines his account of the actual. Bryant is not uncritical of Deleuze however. He says: “What we thus get in Deleuze’s thought is a sort of vertical ontology of the depths. Rather than entities or substances interacting with each other laterally or horizontally, we instead get an ontology where difference arises vertically from the depths of the virtual” (Bryant 2011, p. 100). As with all object-oriented approaches, any tendency towards depth, foundations or context isa move away from objects.

3 Bryant separates ‘endo-relations’ from ‘exo-relations’ (2011, p. 68) as he does ‘endo-qualities’ and ‘exo-qualities’ (2011, p. 120). The former are to do with the internal structure of objects, the latter refer to relations that objects enter into with other objects or qualities that exist in and through other objects.

4 Bryant also uses the terms ‘susceptability’ to translation using Latour’s idea of the network relations that objects undergo (Bryant 2011, pp. 115-116)

5 Arguably, Harman is perhaps being unfair to Bryant here insofar as Bryant’s onticology is avowedly object-oriented. His potentiality is coiled within objects, a matter of substance not plasma or fluxion. Harman’s problem with even this step away from the ‘now’ is based on a broader Bryant-Harman argument around how objects touch. For Bryant objects can and do touch and that is how they “unleash the forces of another object” (Bryant 2011, p. 71). The acorn’s coiled, potential forces to become an oak tree, a missile, food or an artwork are unleashed as it touches the soil, a child’s catapult, a squirrel or a canvas. JPEG’s coiled, potential forces to become an imaging standard, a data-mining tool or a social convention are unleashed as it touches in-camera software, a Facebook algorithm or an Instagram API. Harman is not against connection, let alone power-relations. What he says however is that objects cannot touch. Because they have a ‘real’ dimension that withdraws form all access, they cannot touch except within objects, through a mediating object (RO with RO through a SO; SO and SO though RO). The acorn and the catapult connect in a weapon object. JPEG and the software within Social Graph object. Each connection is different, actual, specific and now.

6 Application Programming Interface. A specification released by a service that enables other developers to build software services or products on top of the platform. Daniel Jacobson et al describe it as “essentially a contract. Once such a contract is in place, developers are enticed to use the API because they know they can rely on it. The contract increases confidence, which increases use” (2011, p. 4). A form of lock-in.


Bryant, L 2010, Shaviro on Relations, Larval Subjects. Retrieved November 8, 2011,  from http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/shaviro-on-relations/

Bryant, L 2011a, Potentiality and Onticology, Larval Subjects. Retrieved September 9, 2011,  from http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/potentiality-and-onticology/

Bryant, L.R., 2011, The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press,.

Harman, G 2010, On Disappointing Realism, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Retrieved November 8, 2011,  from http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/on-disappointing-realisms/

Harman, G 2011a, Another DeLanda book that came out quietly, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Retrieved November 8, 2011,  from http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/another-delanda-book-that-came-out-quietly/

Harman, G 2011b, Levi on potentiality, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Retrieved February 9, 2012,  from http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/levi-on-potentiality/

Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.

Jacobson, D., Brail, G. & Woods, D., 2011, APIs : a strategy guide, O’Reilly, Farnham.

Liebowitz, S.J. & Margolis, S.E., 1995, Path dependence, lock-in, and history, Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 11(1), pp. 205-26.