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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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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It seems, in this model (esp. of Harman and Bryant), that instead of there being a transcendent ground, there are trillions -- perhaps an infinite or 'near-infinite' number -- of transcendent objects. 


What do you think?




Update:  I decided to pose this as a question to Bryant.  Here is the question I asked him:


Would it be fair to say that your position is committed to the thesis, not that there is a transcendent ground, but that there are an uncountable number of transcendent objects -- withdrawn, unreached by and existing beyond all relations?  Which would be a multiplication and a 'democratization' of the transcendent ground, perhaps even an odd kind of polytheism?
I expect this characterization might not be quite accurate, because you mean something rather specific by transcendent: unconditioned in itself, while conditioning all else.  But if we posit objects that withdraw from (transcend?) all relation, then we are positing objects that, once they emerge, simply are what they are -- where the vacuum-seal around each object appears also to suggest an unconditionality, an in-itself-ness beyond conditioning, since to be conditioned is to be in relation.  At least, this is how I understand the point of the withdrawal of objects, that objects as objects in some way elude (transcend) relational determination (conditioning).



Bryant has responded to me and we've had a short exchange, which I'm copying below:


Bryant:  Bruce, For me withdrawal doesn’t mean that objects are unconditioned and eternal, only that they never directly relate. All objects come-to-be and pass-away within this fraemwork and none can overdetermine all the rest.


Bruce:  Yes, I understand that objects, in your model, are not eternal. What is not clear to me, in both your and Harman’s approaches, is what exactly you mean by objects being withdrawn from all relations, however. An object that is withdrawn from ALL relations (endo- and exo-) would be, in that state, unconditioned, because there would be nothing that could ‘reach’ it to condition it. On my website, we’ve been discussing your book and other OOO-related topics for the past several weeks, and this has been a question that has perplexed several of us there. (My own ontological understanding derives primarily from living systems theory, Varela & Maturana’s enactive paradigm, and the Buddhist notion of pratitya-samutpada). Is the claim that objects are withdrawn from ALL relations hyperbolic?


Bryant:  I think you’re maybe running my position together with Harman’s. For me objects are autopoitic and allopoietic systems. They enter into relations all the time and often sustain themselves through relations. What’s important for me is that their relations can be severed and broken. This, however, is often catastrophic for the object. If I’m placed in a vacuum I continue to exist, but I’m also dead as my relation to oxygen is severed. When I say an object is withdrawn, I only mean that it never encounters another object as that object is. It always transforms perturbations from other objects into information based on its own structure. For hArman objects are literally withdrawn from all relations. I’m not sure how thisnworks because he says that real objects experience other real objects as sensual objects, but how is that possible if the object is not entering into some sort of relation with that other object?

Paradoxically, my entire ontological framework is geared towards developing a nuanced framework for investigating relations. For me, what’s interesting is not so much objects in isolation, but what happens when objects enter into relations and when they break from relations.


Bruce:  Thank you; that is clarifying for me, and perhaps I *have* been running your position together with Harman’s. This notion that an object never encounters another object as it is, but rather transforms perturbations from other objects into information based on its own structure, is of course central to Varela’s notions of autopoiesis and enaction: an autopoietic system is organizationally closed but structurally open (never fully withdrawn from ALL relations). I see autopoietic closure as sufficient in itself to conceptualize the withdrawal (or partial withdrawal) of objects, allowing them to elude over-determination by exo-relations. If this is what you mean by withdrawal, then I don’t have any objections to that. It is the notion that objects are withdrawn from ALL relations that seems incoherent to me. (I believe I understand Harman’s claim that a fully relational view, without withdrawal of some kind, is unable to explain change. But in some ways, this is the opposite from Nagarjuna’s pratitya-samutpada: an entity withdrawn from ALL relation would itself have no reason at all to change.)


Bryant:  Bruce, Yes, I have a lengthy discussion of autopoietic theory in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. I do think it’s metaphysically possible for an object to be severed from all relations (I call such objects “dark objects”), but we wouldn’t know anything about them.


Bruce (post still awaiting moderation):  I doubt such objects exist — even neutrinos ‘participate’ in the cosmos to some degree, or we would never have detected them — and I also don’t find any theoretical justification to posit them, but that discussion is probably a tangent here … though, on second thought, I suppose such dark objects would be an example of absolute transcendence, since they would exist necessarily outside of all worldspaces whatsoever, and (on Nagarjuna’s logic) would probably be eternal and unconditioned as well. After all, what would it mean to say that an object that is totally severed from all relations is nevertheless conditioned? Conditioned by what?


I didn’t assert that they do exist (there’s no way we could know because they’d be completely unrelated and knowledge is a relation). I said that they’re a metaphysical possibility. The theoretical justication for this thesis is very simple: if it belongs to the essence of objects that they are detachabpe from relations, it follows that there is the possibility of an object that is severed from all relations. That would be a dark object.

And here is my latest response (still awaiting moderation):


Levi, thank you for your response. (I apologize for so many serial posts today! Your work has caught my interest and I’ve built up a number of questions as I’ve engaged with it over the past several weeks). Regarding the detachability of objects from ALL relations, I suppose I remain unconvinced that this is a possibility or that this is necessarily intrinsic to the nature of objects. Related to this, I have a question regarding your definition of objects as ‘systems’ (whether auto- or allopoietic): Is it consistent or coherent to define objects in systems terms and nevertheless also conceive of them as detachable from ALL relations? I ask because it seems to me that ‘system’ itself is a relational term.

When I say an object is withdrawn, I only mean that it never encounters another object as that object is. It always transforms perturbations from other objects into information based on its own structure.

Plus it seems an object never sees itself "as it is," since it never enters into full presence and remains withdrawn from itself. This has long been a deconstructive criticism of any metaphysics of presence. In Bryant's terms, this is Spencer-Brown's unmarked space to which any object remains oblivious. It might have some relation to Habermas' lifeworld background and L&J's cognitive unconscious, as well as Derrida's khora.

Yes, good point.


On Bryant's thread, a participant there named Center of Parody wrote to me:  ‘scuse me for interrupting, but it’s completely astonishing that Eastern Orthodoxy allows for both positions – as John Doyle alerted me yesterday, God has an ”essence” (equivalent to Harman’s absolute withdrawal) and ”divine energies” which are related to the world (equivalent to dr. Sinthome’s autopoi… damn…) however these kinds of relations with divine energies never allow you to experience God as He really is, only to become somewhat more like Him (in this way both you and God remain semi-withdrawn).


Here is my response: 


Center of Parody, thanks for that comment. I am attracted to Raimon Panikkar’s theology, which rejects an ‘external’ God or transcendent ground, instead seeing the divine as the depth of creatures, and symbolizes divine existence as Trinitarian perichoresis …a radical relationality (akin to nonduality or emptiness) which nevertheless sees each particular participant in such ‘dancing-around’ as irreducible to the other(s), as there is an uncanny, unknowable, and inexhaustible quality to all things (posited as an ontological fact, not an epistemological problem). Panikkar’s overall model, however, may still be subject to critique as correlationist (in that he sees ‘man’ or ‘anthropos’ as equally central to existence as ‘theos’ and ‘cosmos’).

My question was approved, but he has not responded to it.  It's a very simple one, and maybe the answer is an obvious one, but if so, I'm missing it.  I just don't see how it makes sense to define objects as 'systems' and simultaneously hold to the possibility of objects severing or being detachable from all relationships.


On another note, I'm reading Harman (The Quadruple Object) and he is defining his position as panpsychist or polypsychist.  Here, this just means that objects all 'translate' each other differently, based on their own structures.


Something I don't understand in Harman's work (because of my own lack of philosophical acumen, I'm sure) is why he describes his work as "rejecting the Kantian revolution," when his work seems to follow (and expand on) the Kantian split between the unknowable thing-itself (the ever-withdrawn, concealed object) and the structurally mediated, phenomenal or sensual experience of things.  Is the Kantian part that he is rejecting the emphasis on the primacy of human perception?  I don't know.  (Maybe, Dial, if you know, I'd appreciate your feedback).


Balder said:

And here is my latest response (still awaiting moderation):


Levi, thank you for your response. (I apologize for so many serial posts today! Your work has caught my interest and I’ve built up a number of questions as I’ve engaged with it over the past several weeks). Regarding the detachability of objects from ALL relations, I suppose I remain unconvinced that this is a possibility or that this is necessarily intrinsic to the nature of objects. Related to this, I have a question regarding your definition of objects as ‘systems’ (whether auto- or allopoietic): Is it consistent or coherent to define objects in systems terms and nevertheless also conceive of them as detachable from ALL relations? I ask because it seems to me that ‘system’ itself is a relational term.

I've had exactly that same thought, Balder. And I'm sure I recall others saying the same. Perhaps Harman is doing no more than referring to Kant's correlationism.

I don't know what Bryant or Harman are thinking on this, but my own (very minimal) 2 cents (for what it's worth) has to do with what I said above about the withdrawn nature of any (su)object. Relations can only be discerned within the marked space, with what is present to awareness or structural translation. And the unmarked space of khora never enters into presence--nor is it ever merely absent--and hence is without relation. We assume its (non)existence via a transcendental deduction but such a (non)concept only leaves the most ephemeral of traces. Recall our discussions of how to depict this as the crossed-out, like Heidegger's Being (one example). Maybe correlationism has to do with the anthropocentric fixation on presence (being)?

I combined and posted my last 2 comments above (with slight edits) to the a-theism thread at Bryant's blog, as yet awaiting approval and response.

I also like Bryant's response to lol on how Buddhism is a-theistic, in that it generally focuses on impermanence and interdependence. There is no permanent 'essence' that survives, like some unchanging and/or transcendent realm or being. And the 'withdrawn' aspect of any object is not transcendent in that sense, for it too is interdependent on its immanent structure and time (recall Bryant's article on Derrida linked on p. 7 of this thread.)

...And the 'withdrawn' aspect of any object is not transcendent in that sense, for it too is interdependent on its immanent structure and time...


But in which case, then, it is not beyond all relation...  Right? 


(I saw your post on Bryant's blog; I look forward to his response, if there is one.)

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