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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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... 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.

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Hi, Dial, I think Esbjorn-Hargens is not only aware of the critiques, he's trying to take them, or at least some of them, on board.  He regards his paper on ontological pluralism to be an advance beyond the view he and Zimmerman put forward in IE, although IE anticipates aspects of it.  I actually had come across that blog discussion awhile back when searching the web, before we started talking about these subjects here, and I found I also resonated with a number of their critiques.  IE, as "big" as it was in terms of page length, didn't critically engage with a lot of material, including critically reflecting on shortcomings of current Integral Theory, and served more as a general, "big picture" overview of Wilberian Integral thought (applied to ecology).  Through talking recently with Sean E-H, I understand he is seeking to begin articulating a critical Integral theory, outside of -- or no longer so beholden to -- Wilber's views.  I had put forward an ontological pluralist view in a recent paper of mine, for instance, within the field of religious studies, and he encouraged me to keep developing that since he didn't think Wilber presently was capable of doing that kind of work (no longer doing academic work and focusing more now on organizational oversight).


I also do have looming, leaning stacks of reading, virtual and not, so I need more time to investigate and digest the contributions of OOO and speculative realism.  A connection worth investigating occurred to me last night, however.  In my discussion with Tom on the Postmetaphysics thread, I made reference to the book, SpinbitZ, and this morning started thinking about potentials for mutual fecundation between OOO and Joel Morrison's interface epistemology -- which focuses on the metaphor of membrane, and which treats objects (following Spinoza, Leibniz, Deleuze, Prigogine, and others) as bounded infinities.  One of his descriptions of reality, as I recall, is of bounded infinities infinitely interfacing with bounded infinities.  It has been awhile since I read his discussion of that, so I will need to return to the book and seek out those passages that deal with this, but the possibility of such a connection motivates me both to engage more with OOO and to return to SpinbitZ for deeper reading.  My expectation at this point is that the views will likely "touch" but will also converge in significant ways.  I expect also that I may be more sympathetic to Joel's vision, since I prefer a view that emphasizes relationship to a greater degree than I have encountered so far in OOO.  But I'm still speaking from a rather limited understanding of the latter.

As we saw with Bryant’s mereology, there are certainly larger or more inclusive assemblages (or holons in kennilingus). But the relationship of part to whole is not one of unity. In that regard here’s an excerpt from the concluding paragraph of TDOO, answering possible kennilingus charges that his flat ontology flattens all distinctions where ‘everything is equal’:

“This democracy of objects does not amount to the thesis that all objects contribute equally to all other objects or to all collectives. Clearly tardigrades contribute little or nothing to collectives involving human beings. Here, then, I return to Ian Bogost's thesis that all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally. Entities perturb other objects more and less. Entities play greater and smaller roles in various collectives. Some entities, no doubt, do not perturb other objects at all, and as we saw in the case of Roy Bhasker in the first chapter, other objects are dormant. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all objects contribute equally, but that all objects equally exist. In its ontological egalitarianism, what flat ontology thus refuses is the erasure of any object as the mere construction of another object.” 

I am reminded of the kennilingus notion that all beings have the same ground or absolute value but different relative or intrinsic values (for example here). Obviously though there is a difference of opinion about the nature of both absolute and relative and how they relate (or don’t). This is in part due to the differences on ‘second-order’ observation and how structuralists like the kennilinguists interpret it via nested and wholistic hierarchies. (See above for example.) That is, there is a debate as to the nature of this second-order observation and what it implies. For example see this from Chapter 5.3 of TDOO: 

“At the methodological level, they [structuralists] implicitly practiced second-order observation, observing how observers observe, by observing the manner in which other social systems or objects relate to the world. Yet this line of inquiry, as promising as it was, was itself under-theorized…. in their structuralist imperialism of treating structure as a net thrown over the entire world, they undermined the possibility of accounting for how second-order observation of other structures might be possible. In part, this problem emerged as a result of failing to properly mark or identify the limits of structure.”


I have a very basic question, which I might be able to answer for myself once I have time to read TDOO more carefully, but I'll ask it now in case either of you (Dial or Theurj) might be able to give a perspective on it.  Essentially, what constitutes a "really existent object"?  I recall seeing Bryant's discussion of allopoietic and autopoietic objects, and I expect part of my answer is there.  But what I've read thus far has left open questions for me about just how/where the boundary is drawn to determine what constitutes a unique object (which is 'closed' to 'everything else,' and which withdraws both from others and from self).  Are organisms such objects?  Artifacts?  If I built a big structure out of popsicle sticks, would that structure have its unique own-being, its own uniquely enclosed and ever-withdrawing ontological depth, as popsicle stick-structure?  Or would the actual self-enclosed objects be the individual popsicle sticks, or something else?  Madhyamaka analysis makes me suspicious of the claim that we can name anything that, in itself, has its unique own-being, cut off from and independent of all relationships with other objects.  But if we do posit it, how and where is the 'boundary' of such an object drawn?  Does unique, ever-withdrawing own-being come into being as soon as a particular form takes shape or is assembled -- say, as soon as I make a Playdoh Mr. Bill?  (You can tell I've got a young kid with art projects to do).  Or are there only some things which have such being?  Or are these wrong questions?
Yes, I was thinking along similar lines -- and I think such a view would likely relate directly to my observation above that OOO objects may be similar to the "object as bounded infinity" discussed by Joel in his book.  But this would suggest that some "objects" are not objects in this sense -- e.g., they are "heaps" or artifacts, not holons.  As we discussed on the Machine thread.  This is where I think Bryant's discussion of allopoietic and autopoietic objects will come in, but I've yet to read that section of Bryant's book closely.  Hopefully I will have time for that later this week.

I have a feeling the OOO folks would like to talk about objects serving as boundary-setters for each other without bringing in subjects, or bringing them in only secondarily (subject reconceived as a kind of object).

But we could alternatively talk about a holonic ontology, or holon-oriented ontology.  HOO let the dogs out, HOO! HOO-HOO!  I think Joel makes a good case in SpinbitZ that, rather than having 'perspective' replace 'holon' in Wilber-5, we should use perspective and holon in complementary fashion.

I cannot answer your questions, as I'm new to SR and OOO and don't have a decent, let alone comprehensive, grasp of it as yet. What little I have explored so far is on what I've commented and I'm trying to learn more while remaining somewhat open. Given that I cannot make the kind of generalizations made above by those who have yet to read much of it.*

* At least someone admits as much: "But I'm still speaking from a rather limited understanding of the latter."

I have no desire whatsoever to play with your dice.

From section Section 4.1 of TDOO:


“At the outset, it is important to note that my thesis is not that all objects are autopoietic machines. In their early founding essay, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, Maturana and Varela distinguish between autopoietic machines and allopoietic machines. [152] Later I will explain the distinction between these two types of objects in greater detail,* but for the moment it is sufficient to note that when Maturana and Varela refer to autopoietic machines, they are referring to living objects, while when they refer to allopoietic machines they are referring to non-living objects. Luhmann expands the domain of the autopoietic beyond living organisms to include social systems within the purview of autopoiesis, but for the moment this rough and ready distinction is sufficient for our purposes. With a few qualifications, I accept Maturana and Varela's distinction between autopoietic and allopoietic machines.”


Section 4.3 gets more specific. Still trying to sort it out myself.

Here are some some quotes from different parts of section 4.3. I don't claim to understand them quite yet in the context of his general ideas, just some inklings at this point as to their relevance:


“While objects are, in principle, independent of their relations, objects are only ever encountered in and among relations to other objects.”


“The point is that knowledge is gained not by representing, doing.”


“If we don't attend to the regime of attraction in which the autopoietic system develops, we fall prey to a tendency to treat local manifestations as strictly resulting from innate factors in the system, rather than seeing them as results of an interaction between both system-specific properties of the system and perturbations from the environment that are translated into information which then selects system-states. Here the conclusion seems to be that development does not have any one particular attractor in the teleological sense.”


“There are significant differences between how autopoietic and allopoietic systems respond to information events.... In the case of autopoietic objects...asymmetrical qualities seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Developmental processes, for example, appear to be largely irreversible, changing the structure of an autopoietic object's local manifestation irrevocably.”

Thomas why not put aside what you know for a while and gain greater familiarity with OOO. Then from that stance see what OOO and other variants of
Speculative Realism can do. Or, perhaps what you can do with your current understandings inflected by/added to, by OOO? Harman says the easiest thing in the world is to find where a thinker is 'wrong' in his/her (usually a his) details and argument, and that first year philosophy students can do this with Plato or Leibniz, to give just two examples. It is their imagination and insight and the resources for thinking they provide that makes them part of the canon. Similarly Bryant (or it may be Harman again - I'm ascribing comment from memory) says that the measure of new thought is how much work it provides for other thinkers to engage in. Fashion aside, and, of course, there is a degree of that in their rapid uptake, the Speculative Realists provide others - in many domains aside from philosophy - with the tools to do a great deal of work. Why not join them? Harman is absolutely correct, don't you think? - we should celebrate people willing to propose new conceptions, rather than spend our time feeling triumphant and dismissive because we've proved some small aspect 'wrong' And it may be that what we thought was 'wrong' turns out not to be...

Thomas said:

It doesn't take much reading, Ed, when an author has seriously misapprehended quantum physics.  For instance, this:


More generally, what Niels Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum.


Sorry, no dice there.  And dice, says even Einstein, who at least got that much, is essential.

Why not put aside what you know for a while?

Perhaps you expect too much from the bohrn again?

Theurji, I don't see your writing -- just a blank post.

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