Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
In my research today I came upon this interesting article, “Here comes everything: the promise of object-oriented ontology” by Timothy Morton. (New link, old one broken.) It is of interest not only to speculative realism but also to some recent discussions on Caputo's ontology, modes of apprehension of such, and quantum theory. The article is 27 pages of text so I've culled some excerpts, lengthy in themselves.
Speculative realism...asserts the deep mystery of a Non-Nature....object-oriented ontology (OOO)...goes further than this, rejecting essentialist Matter.... OOO is a form of realism that asserts that real things exist--these things are objects, not just amorphous “Matter”.... OOO extends Husserl's and Heidegger's arguments that things have an irreducible dark side: no matter how many times we turn over a coin, we never see the other side as the other side--it will have to flip onto “this” side for us to see it, immediately producing another underside. Harman simply extends this irreducible darkness from subject–object relationships to object–object relationships.... Causation is thus vicarious in some sense, never direct. An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either.... We've become so used to hearing “object” in relation to “subject” that it takes some time to acclimatize to a view in which there are only objects, one of which is ourselves.
The notion of the “withdrawal” of objects extends my term strange stranger to non-living entities. Strange stranger names an uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life forms. Life forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another--the strangeness is irreducible....the uncanny essence of humans that Heidegger contemplates extends to nonhumans.... The more we know about a strange stranger, the more she (he, it) withdraws. Objects withdraw such that other objects never adequately capture but only (inadequately) “translate” them....This is what “irreducible” means.
Rhetoric is not simply ear candy for humans: indeed, a thorough reading of Plato, Aristotle and Longinus suggests that rhetoric is a technique for contacting the strange stranger....[it] amplifies imagination rather than trying to upstage it, and it revels in dislocation, not location.... Harman's imagery differs from ecophenomenological ecomimesis that confirms the localized position of a subject with privileged access to phenomena.... Harman's rhetoric produces an object-oriented sublime that breaks decisively with the Kantian taboo on noncorrelationist scientific speculation....ekphrasis is not about the reaction of the (human) subject, but about rhetorical modes as affective-contemplative techniques for summoning the alien.
The aesthetic, as we shall see, is the secret door through which OOO discovers a theory of what is called “subject”.... Melancholia is precisely a mode of intimacy with strange objects that can't be digested by the subject.... To lapse into Californian, OOO is so about the subject. There is no good reason to be squeamish about this. The more the ekphrasis zaps us, the more we fall back into the gravity well of melancholy. Sentience is out of phase with objects, at least if you have a nervous system. So melancholia is the default mode of subjectivity: an object-like coexistence with other objects and the otherness of objects--touching them, touching the untouchable, dwelling on the dark side one can never know, living in endless twilight shadows. If the reader has experienced grief she or he will recognize this state as an object-like entity that resides somewhere within the body, with an amortization schedule totally separated from other temporalities (in particular, the strict digital clock time of contemporary life). Through the heart of subjectivity rolls an object-like coexistence, none other than ecological coexistence--the ecological thought fully-fledged as dark ecology . The inward, withdrawn, operationally closed mood called melancholy is something we shake off at our peril in these dark ecological times.
Melancholy starts to tell us the truth about the withdrawn qualities of objects. OOO thus differs from theistic ecophilosophy that asserts, “There is a Nature.” It maintains no absolute distance between subject and object; it limits “subject” to no entity in particular. Žižek's suspicion of SR to do with the “feminine” self-absorption of objects: precisely what he doesn't like about Buddhism. Changing “self-absorption” to “withdrawal” or “operational closure” discloses what's threatening about Buddhism: an object-like entity at the core of what is called subjectivity. Like ecomimesis, Harman's passage affirms a real world beyond mentation. Unlike ecomimesis, this world doesn't surround a subject--it's a world without reference to a subject.
If OOO construes everything as objects, some may believe that it would have a hard time talking about subjects--indeed, Slavoj Žižek has already criticized SR in general along these lines. This subjectivity is profoundly ecological and it departs from normative Western ideas of the subject as transcendence. Thus we see off Nature and its correlate, the (human) subject. I argue that OOO enjoins us to drop Matter just as we must drop Nature, and that this means that it can save the appearance of the most coherent and testable physical theory we have, namely quantum theory.
Let's turn our attention to... things....how far “down things” does OOO really go? Are these things made of some kind of substrate, some kind of unformed matter? Does “withdrawal” mean that objects are impenetrable in some non-figurative, nonhuman sense? Do objects have a spatial “inside”? Surely they might. But the principle of irreducibility must mean that this inside is radically unavailable. It's not simply a case of the right equipment passing through it, like a knife through butter. Even a knife through butter would not access the butter in all its essential butteriness. The proliferation of things that ecology talks about--from trees to nuclear power--do not compromise a holistic Nature. Nor yet are they comprised of some intrinsic, essential stuff. To dispatch Matter, we must explore the most rigorous and testable theory of physical Matter we know: quantum theory.
Unlike some thinkers who discovered OOO in spite of deconstruction, I backed into OOO through deconstruction. SR tends to mistake deconstruction for nominalism, subjectivism and Meillassoux's correlationism.... Contemporary physics concurs with a principle tenet of Lacan and Derrida: there's no “big Other,” no device, for instance, that could measure quantum phenomena without participating in these phenomena. All observations are inside the system, or as Derrida puts it, “There is nothing outside the text” (or, in Gayatri Spivak's alternative, which I prefer, “There is no outside-text”). Arkady Plotnitsky has traced the affinities between deconstruction and quantum physics. People commonly misconstrue “there is no-outside-text” as nominalism: we can only know things by their names. Far more drastically, the axiom means: (1) Any attempt to establish rigid boundaries between reality and information results in unsustainable paradoxes; (2) Language is radically nonhuman--even when humans use it. It would be a mistake to hold that (1) is correlationism. “There is no outsidetext” occurs in a passage in which Derrida is analyzing Rousseau's position on Nature, so it's worth pausing here since this issue is directly relevant to ecocriticism. Derrida tacks close to the text he’s analyzing, which is why he appeals to close readers in the first place. He is not making a sweeping generalization about reality. Derrida is only saying, “Given the kind of closed system textuality that Rousseau prescribes, there is no outside-text.” That is, Rousseau can’t go around making claims about nature, not because there is nothing out there, but because the way he models thinking sets textuality up as a black hole....[but] Derrida abstained from ontology: he considered it tainted by the generalization-disease. Unfortunately this defaults to various forms of antirealism. Derrida's is a sin of omission.... OOO shares one thing at least with deconstruction--refraining from assertions about some general essence or substance at the back of things that guarantees their existence.
OOO is troubling for materialisms that rely on any kind of substrate, whether it consists of discrete atoms or of a continuum.... Certain uncontroversial facts, demonstrable in highly repeatable experiments, shatter essentialist prejudices concerning Matter.... Quantum phenomena are not simply hard to access or only partially “translated” by minds and other objects. They are irreducibly withdrawn.
OOO is form of realism, not materialism. In this it shares affinities with quantum theory. Antirealism pits quantum theory against its opponents, since quantum theory supposedly shows reality is fuzzy or deeply correlated with perception and so forth. In fact, quantum theory is the only existing theory to establish firmly that things really do exist beyond our mind (or any mind). Quantum theory positively guarantees that real objects exist! Not only that--these objects exist beyond one another. Quantum theory does this by viewing phenomena as quanta, as discrete “units” as described in Unit Operations by OOO philosopher Ian Bogost. “Units” strongly resemble OOO “objects.” Thinking in terms of units counteracts problematic features of thinking in terms of systems. A kind of systems thinking posed significant problems for nineteenth-century physicists. Only consider the so-called black body radiation problem. Classical thermodynamics is essentially a systems approach that combines the energy of different waves to figure out the total energy of a system. The black box in question is a kind of oven. As the temperature in the oven increases, results given by summing the wave states according to classical theory become absurd, tending to infinity.
By seeing the energy in the black box as discrete quanta (“units”), the correct result is obtained. Max Planck's discovery of this approach gave birth to quantum theory. Now consider perception, for the sake of which antirealism usually cites quantum theory. What does quantum theory show about our mental interactions with things? Perceptual, sensual phenomena such as hardness and brilliance are at bottom quantum mechanical effects. I can't put my hand through this table because it is statistically beyond unlikely that the quanta at the tip of my finger could bust through the resistance wells in the quanta on the table's surface. That's what solidity is. It's an averagely correct experience of an aggregate of discrete quanta. This statistical quality, far from being a problem, is the first time humans have been able to formalize supposedly experiential phenomena such as solidity. What some people find disturbing about quantum theory (once in a gajillion times I can put my finger through the table) is precisely evidence for the reality of things. (This is a version of an argument in Meillassoux, AF 82–5).
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. In other words quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant (mis)translation of one quantum by another. Thus when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”--not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)--makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded (QT 99–115). Observation is as much part of the Universe of objects as the observable, not some ontologically different state (say of a subject). More generally, what Niels Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum. Just as a focusing lens makes one object appear sharper while others appear blurrier, one quantum variable comes into sharp definition at the expense of others (QT 158–61). This isn't about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. Some phenomena are irreducibly undecidable, both wavelike and particle-like. The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level. OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate and testable theory of physical reality available. Again, it would be better to say it the other way around: quantum theory works because it's object-oriented.
Probing the quantum world, then, is a form of auto-affection. Bohr argued that quantum phenomena don't simply concatenate themselves with their measuring devices. They're identical to it: the equipment and the phenomena form an indivisible whole (QT 139–40, 177). This “quantum coherence” applies close to absolute zero, where particles become the “same” thing.
Implication and explication suggest Matter being enfolded and unfolded from something deeper. Even if it were the case that OOO should defer to physics, in the terms set by physics itself objects aren't made “of” any one thing in particular. Just as there is no top level, there may be no bottom level that is not an (substantial, formed) object.
To this extent, “object” (as a totally positive entity) is a false immediacy. Positive assertions about objects fail because objects have a shadowy dark side, a mysterious interiority like the je ne sais quoi of Kantian beauty. Is this nothing at all? Is there a path from the carnival of things to a bleak nothingness? Nihilism, believing that you have no beliefs, maintains that things emerge from an impenetrable mystery. Nihilism, the cool kids' religion, shuns the inconveniences of intimacy. We have objects--they have us--under our skin. They are our skin. OOO can't be a form of nihilism. It's the opposite view (relationism) that tends towards nihilism. Relationism holds that objects are nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects. This begs the question of what an object is, since the definition implies a potential infinite regress: what are the “other objects”? Why, nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects--and so on ad obscurum. At least OOO takes a shot at saying what objects are: they withdraw. This doesn't mean that they don't relate at all. It simply means that how they appear has a shadowy, illusory, magical, “strangely strange” quality. It also means they can't be reduced to one another. OOO holds that strangeness is impossible if objects are reducible to their relations. Since relationism is hamstrung by its reluctance to posit anything, it tends towards obscurantism. Relationism is stuck in a Euthyphronic dilemma: objects consist of relations between other objects—and what are those objects? An object as such is never defined. So while ecological criticism appears to celebrate interconnectedness, it must in the end pay attention to what precisely is interconnected with what.
This radical finitude includes a strange irreducible openness.
I like this blurb on TDOO:
"Since Kant, philosophy has been obsessed with epistemological questions pertaining to the relationship between mind and world and human access to objects. In The Democracy of Objects, Bryant proposes that we break with this tradition and once again initiate the project of ontology as first philosophy. Drawing on the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman, as well as the thought Roy Bhaskar, Gilles Deleuze, Niklas Luhman, Aristotle, Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour and the developmental systems theorists, Bryant develops a realist ontology that he calls 'onticology.' This ontology argues that being is composed entirely of objects, properties, and relations such that subjects themselves are a variant of objects. Drawing on the work of the systems theorists and cyberneticians, Bryant argues that objects are dynamic systems that relate to the world under conditions of operational closure. In this way, he is able to integrate the most vital discoveries of the anti-realists within a realist ontology that does justice to both the material and cultural. Onticology proposes a flat ontology where objects of all sorts and at different scales equally exist without being reducible to other objects and where there are no transcendent entities such as eternal essences outside of dynamic interactions among objects."
Yes, great stuff, indeed. I hope that others here will delve into him. He's clear and exciting, and if they don't take on his ideas, he'll still serve as great foil for their own thinking.
And for those who'd like a lucid reading of Lacan, editor Graham Harman gave great praise to the Lacan chapter saying it was the clearest he'd ever read. I've read bits and pieces of Lacan, including some excellent secondary commentary from Bruce Fink and Richard Boothby, none of which has really stuck, so I'm rather looking forward to Bryant's masterly take - just one of many treasures the book is sure to hold.
Less artful than Morton, however - though highly crafted. And less 'soulful' than Caputo, too, - since we're making comparisons... (perhaps, 'soulful' isn't the right word for Caputo)
I read the Intro to TDOO and it is lucid, concise and highly intelligible. It generated a lot of thoughts and questions, to be explored when I can. Among other things it highlights some of the chapter topics, chapter 5 being on mereology. For now one representative sentence on the topic from the Intro:
"There is no 'super-object,' Whole, or totality that would gather all objects together in a harmonious unity."
That is, no assholons. I think I like this guy, at least a little.
From TDOO with comment following:
"On the epistemological front, the subject/object distinction has the curious effect of leading the epistemologist to focus on propositions and representations alone, largely ignoring the role that practices and nonhuman actors play in knowledge-production. As a consequence, the central question becomes that of how and whether propositions correspond to reality. In the meantime, we ignore the laboratory setting, engagement with matters and instruments, and so on. It is as if experiment and the entities that populate the laboratory are treated as mere means to the end of knowledge such that they can be safely ignored as contributing nothing to propositional content, thereby playing no crucial role in the production of knowledge. Yet by ignoring the site, practices, and procedures by which knowledge is produced, the question of how propositions represent reality becomes thoroughly obscure because we are left without the means of discerning the birth of propositions and the common place where the world of the human and nonhuman meets."
Not all epistemologists accept the representation paradigm, which is what he's describing. And the embodied realists are not stricly epistemologists, nor is Derrida for that matter. I think they both utilize the laboratory concerning the production of knowledge and are not limited to propositions, in fact agreeing with this criticism. The birth of propositions, of reason itself, for L&J for example is the body and environment, and "mind" as it were is distributed throughout said environment, i.e., within objects. And for Derrida such a birth resides in the pre-originary khora. And so on.
In the development of my own thinking, I've been leaning in the direction of an enactive / ontological pluralist approach, such as has been explored by Mol, Ferrer, or more recently (in the Integral context), Esbjorn-Hargens. Are you familiar with these (related) views, Dial, and if so, how do you think they align, if at all, with OOO or speculative realism? This is something I'll be exploring myself, as I read more, but I thought I'd ask you now in case you already have thoughts on the issue.
And yet whatever it is about an object that is withdrawn is not an "essence," that much seems clear. And yet it is inaccessible, even to the object itself? I am reminded some of L&J's cognitive unconscious. While we have no direct access to it we can make some fairly accurate speculations as to its functioning.
Balder, check out chapter 4 of TDOO. He brings in Varela and Luhmann on autopoiesis. I have yet to read it but I think there you might find a bit on how the enactive figures in this (and doesn't).
Dial, yes, here's a link to a thread I started about Mol's work. When I get home this evening, I can provide you with a link to Esbjorn-Hargens' paper. I started thinking along similar lines independently through my reflections on several of Wilber's remarks in Integral Spirituality, and in relation to similar ideas I've come across in the work of Michel Bitbol, Jorge Ferrer, and others. In Mol's phrase, an object is "more than one and less than many" -- not "many objects" but "a multiple object." Different practices or modes of interaction enact different "versions" or iterations of the object (without over-determining the object, e.g., it is "more than" or "exceeds" the practice-relationship).
I'll write on this a bit more later, once I've gotten a little more deeply into Bryant's book. Right now, OOO appears to me to be another step in that polar dance which either prioritizes 'object' or 'relationship.' In the modern West, prior to the postmodern turn, object was primary, and relationship secondary: there are objects first, which then incidentally enter into various kinds of relationships. Then the move to a systems view seemed to reverse that: relationship/intersubjectivity is primary, and objects ex-ist as abstracted 'nodes' in those relationships. OOO involves a turn back to the primacy of objects, it appears, but I'm not clear yet how closely this aligns with what I see as a roughly similar move made by ontological pluralists (to re-introduce ontological language, after the 'object-purging' of the postmodern turn).
I also can't resist recalling Morton's use of the word 'intermodulation' - we never see the wind, only the door banging in the wind. We could extend that, and say we never really see the object, only its intermodulation with/via other objects. And that intermodulation is the translation of one object by another. The entanglement of one object with another.
This is exactly one of those the 'awry details' that I said I would likely include in my response above to theurj's question. (Not to mention the repetition, elsewhere) It is not that we 'never really see the object, only it's intermodulation with/via other objects.' as I wrote, it's that OOO think they have found a way to speak of our this intermodulation of object via object. And that the subject/object intermodulation is just one object/object intermodulation among many. So while that subject/object intermodulation is indeed of great interest, it is not central, or of a different kind to all other object/object intermodulations/translations in general.