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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
From chapter 1.4:
"No doubt a number of objections will have arisen in the mind of the reader sympathetic to the correlationist line of argument. In particular, three lines of argument can be anticipated: First, that the realist ontology and transcendental line of argument proposed by Bhaskar purports to know objects a priori before knowing them; second, that it is impossible to imagine a world without men because we still imagine ourselves as being present to this world in our absence to this world; and third, in a closely related vein, that it is impossible to think anything without, as it were, including ourselves in the picture of what is to be thought. I will address each of these objections in their turn."
Here are a few excerpts from Chapter 1 with my comments following:
1.4: “Is it self-evident that any thought must include the thinker or that the thinker is thinking the thought? While I certainly concede the thesis that in many instances we are capable of self-reflexively thinking the thought that we are thinking a thought, I am much more circumspect about the claim that all thought is necessarily reflexive. Were this the case, then it would seem that thought is impossible, for we would fall into an infinite regress…. What we need here is something like Sartre's ‘pre-reflexive cogito’ which thinks something without simultaneously thinking itself. Yet if such a cogito is possible, and indeed it appears necessary, then we have a thinking that doesn't simultaneously posit itself but which is completely absorbed in what we are thinking.”
All of which proves that our thinking isn’t necessarily always correlational but can be ‘direct’ with the world of objects from a pre-reflexive cogito. It doesn’t appear to be so much a question of access because there is no reflexive self that needs access when one is being this necessary condition for reflexitivity. Which reminds me of several of my previous discussions about our pre-reflexive awareness being not of the world but being in the world. This embodied realist notion is not necessarily a correlationist argument in that such being is not limited to humans or even animals but inherent to all suobjects. Granted this being is different for each, one of the suppositions of epistemology he grants. Yet it also grants autonomy to the suobjects in themselves.
1.5: “Foundationalism is premised on the possibility of absolute presence, absolute proximity, the absence of all absence, and we have now discovered that it is being itself that is split between generative mechanisms or objects and the actual. Difference, deferral, absence, and so on are not idiosyncracies of our being preventing us from ever reaching being, but are, rather, ontological characteristics of being as such.”
This goes back to prior posts in the thread concerning Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, and how we can speculate that being itself is not ever fully ‘present’ but rather split ontologically. This again goes to the question of access, since obviously one cannot access something of which they cannot be aware. Or more to the point, something that doesn’t even exist but rather remains in potential until (if) it actualizes. Never of course fully actualizing, always holding something in reserve.
1.6: “Those who advise us to observe the observer somehow seem to miss the point that the very act of observing the observer or observing how other observers observe presupposes the existence of an observer that is doing the observing of other observers. Far from undermining the thesis that substances or objects exist, in other words, this move presupposes the existence of at least one substance or object. And as a consequence, this move is incapable of consistently maintaining the thesis that the world is a product of how observers perceive other objects.”
This questions the assumptions of our discussions on how the observed phenomenon is always in relation to the observer. That in fact the observed itself can only be measured within that relation. But does it imply that the observed doesn’t exist if there is no observation? Or that it is immeasureable or infinite in itself if there is no observation? Or perhaps that there are no objects at all in the immeasureable infinite, the latter being a non-category and necessarily condition upon which one can even presuppose relations? That seems to be one difference with OOO, that this necessary condition is of objects themselves, which even though they maintain an unknowable hidden side they are not infinite but rather very specifically bounded and must ceaselessly maintain they environmental relations to retain their autonomy. Or something like that?
From 1.6 (my underline):
Those who advise us to observe the observer somehow seem to miss the point that the very act of observing the observer or observing how other observers observe presupposes the existence of an observer that is doing the observing of other observers. Far from undermining the thesis that substances or objects exist, in other words, this move presupposes the existence of at least one substance or object.
Hrmm, If we think that object nouns are just arbitrary labels we give to bundles of properties-as-relational-qualities that cluster together rather than inhering in some quasi-Aristotelean substance, then the act of observation presupposes a process ontology rather than an object ontology.
As for whether properties exist outside of process/relationships, my answer is that no, they don't. Not in the metaphysical sense of saying with absolute certainty that they don't exist (how could we know that?), but in the pragmatic, epistemological sense that we only have evidence of things in process. When the box lid is closed and we can't see the cat any more.... well, then nothing. "I don't know" means "I don't know". Nothing follows from ignorance, except useless, philosophical arguments.
Given several discussions of late about contradiction and complimentarity the following from chapter 2.2 is interesting:
“It is a peculiar characteristic of substances that they are non-dialectical. As Aristotle remarks, '[a]nother characteristic of substances is that there is nothing contrary to them'.  Beginning with Hegel, dialectic takes on two meanings that are distinct but often conflated with one another. First, and especially in a Marxist context, dialectic can be taken to refer to thinking that is specifically relational in character. Marx, for example, shows how commodities can only exist in certain social formations characterized by wage labor and capitalism. Later, in our discussion of regimes of attraction and exo-relations we will see how some notion of dialectic in this relational sense can be retained with respect to local manifestations. Second, dialectic can be taken to mean a thinking of relation in terms of contraries and contradictions that are sublated in ever greater wholes or totalities. While onticology readily recognizes the existence of antagonisms, it sees no reason to see antagonisms as the equivalent to contraries or contradictions.
“Substances are not defined by contraries or opposites, but simply are what they are. This, of course, is not to suggest that substances do not come into being or that they cannot pass out of being, only that they do not admit of opposed or contrary terms. An individual ncane toad does not have an opposite. Rather, if there is contrariety, it exists only in the domain of qualities. Later, when discussing local manifestation and virtual proper being we will see that there is reason to doubt that contrariety is a genuine ontological category. Insofar as substances are not constituted by their relations, insofar as relations are not internal to their terms, it follows that substances cannot be dialectical in either the relational sense or the sense of contrariety. Contrariety, if it exists, exists at the level of qualities, not substances. It is only through an erasure of substances, through a reduction of substances to their qualities, through the gesture of actualism as discussed in the last chapter, that it can be supposed that substance is dialectical.”
And the following from chapter 2.3 explains that such dialectics arises within the epistemic fallacy. It is interesting to note how much of “what is given in experience” is indeed the basis for most (post)modern philosophy, even its more embodied and enactive kinds, as well as in the 'observer in the observed' varieties. This is truly a radical break with all of that.
“Locke, Kant, Hume and much of the subsequent philosophical tradition ends up where they do precisely because they fall into what Bhaskar calls the 'epistemic fallacy' and actualism, confusing questions of our access to beings with questions of what beings are. Beginning with the actualist thesis borne out of a desire for secure foundations (i.e., a desire secondary to the demands of ontology), they restrict discourse to what is given in experience. They then find that they are unable to account for the furniture of the universe precisely because substance is that which withdraws from any givenness, experience, or, indeed, actuality. As such, substance is not something that can anywhere be found in experience—no one has ever seen or experienced, I contend, a single substance—but is rather an irreducible ontological premise necessary if our commerce with the world and experimental activity is to be intelligible. The existence of substance is not something that can be arrived at through an experience or a direct observation, but can only be arrived at as a premise through transcendental argumentation. When we adopt the actualist gesture of restricting knowledge to what is directly given in experience, this way of reaching substance is irrevocably foreclosed.”
As to what is 'transcendental argument,' recall from chapter 1.2:
“As Deleuze reminds us, the transcendental is not to be confused with the transcendent. The transcendent refers to that which is above or beyond something else. For example, God, if it exists, is perhaps transcendent to the world. The transcendental, by contrast, refers to that which is a condition for some other practice, form of cognition, or activity.... Too often questions of the transcendental have been confused with questions of the transcendent. The point, however, is that transcendental questions are questions about what renders a particular practice or activity possible. Transcendental questions are questions of what a particular practice requires to take place and refer to what is immanent to these practices.
“Additionally it should be noted that transcendental questions are not foundationalist in character. Transcendental questions do not seek an absolutely secure and unassailable foundation for knowledge or practice, but merely ask, 'given such and such a practice, what must be the case in order for this practice to be possible?' As such, transcendental inquiry sidesteps the epistemological project inaugurated by Descartes and so compellingly critiqued by Hume, by disavowing the project of seeking for an absolute foundation for knowledge.”
Also recall Bryant's article (linked on p. 7) using Derrida's transcendental argument of iteration. One relevant passage:
“Derrida’s thesis is thus that every 'sign' contains within it the possibility of breaking with the context in which it emerged, such that it can fall into other and different contexts.... It is only where entities are autonomous and independent substances that they can exceed and escape their context. What Derrida articulates in this passage is a variation of Aristotle’s concept of primary substances; for the very being of primary substance is to exceed and be detachable from every context.... There is no reason, therefore, to restrict this property of iterability to signs. Iterability or the ability to break with all and any context, is an essential feature of every entity such that every entity harbors a volcanic excess over every context.”
At this point, I still struggle with -- and find hard to accept -- the idea that something like a blue mug has an essential/substantial mugness wholly independent of all relationships. For instance, 'mug' is a conventional designation -- and an instrumental one. It doesn't make sense to me to speak of there being a special, unique (if ever-elusive) mug-substance. To call it 'mug,' to me, is already to define the object relationally.
With that said, since I've returned to SpinbitZ and have started reading around in it again, as I mentioned the other day that I would, I am wondering if there is a possible relationship between the OOO discussion of substance and Prigogine's notion of 'active matter' -- the idea that matter has "infinite depth of detail" ("infinite depth, activity and modification") (p. 184).
Yes, recall the following from a prior forum post:
"In the later collaboration between Deleuze and Guttari, the writings of Ilya Prigogine become increasingly important. Prigogine, whose book La nouvelle alliance appeared in 1979, argues for a self-ordering of chemical components into patterns and relationships that cannot be read off from the previous state of chemical disarray.... It is not the introduction of some sort of ordering mechanism that makes the chemical clock appear. It is an inherent capability of the chemicals themselves for self-organization that gives rise to this phenomenon. It is as though there were virtual potentialities for communication or coordination contained in the chemicals themselves, or at least in their groupings, that are actualized under conditions that move away from equilibrium."