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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
Yes, I remember saying (many pages ago) that if, by 'substance,' Bryant only meant autopoieitic structure (or closure), then I would have no objections to it at all. But I also said I did not understand why Bryant and Harman have both nevertheless seemed to criticize 'relational' views and insist that substance is non-relational. I mentioned above that I thought this so-called non-relational aspect could be correlated with emergence -- particularly, with the living systems principle that systems are non-summative wholes (meaning, there is an emergent aspect of any system that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts). But in such a view, it wouldn't make sense (to me) for there to be this apparent ideological divide between OOO's substance view and the so-called relational view (since such a 'unit,' while not over-determined or -influenced by its surround, nevertheless is a relational emergent).
In any event, regarding the post-Nagarjunan self Wilber describes, I wasn't referring to his formless Causal Self (Spirit). I was referring specifically to a long footnote in SES where Wilber uses a systems approach to defend the use of self-language or reference to a self or ego (as opposed to no-self views, which in some forms seem to reject all reference to self).
Re: Bryant's reflections on religious practice and Foucauldian practices of the self, I am reminded of course of Levin's writings on the same, but also of Peter Sloterdijk, who has developed his own Heidegger-influenced ontology (which may be interesting to explore in light of OOO), and whose most recent book, You Must Change Your Life, was introduced by Christophe here awhile back (and deals with 'practices of the self,' defining humans as practicing / self-making animals).
Do you mean this footnote in SES? If so, please reiterate your earlier point, as I wasn't paying attention.
I just peeked at the footnote but, yes, I think that's it, or one related to it. That seems to focus more on Nagarjuna and less on a systems view than what I remember, but the point is the same: beyond a Buddhist deconstructive analysis, which first dismantles naive belief in a self, a return to "self" language is possible and even important (this time informed by the salient insights achieved through such deconstruction). I was saying that I notice a similar move in OOO: pushing past the necessary and important critiques of objective and ontological metaphysics, it is possible to emerge on the far side of such a general movement (the various anti-realisms, correlationisms, intersubjective anti-ontological philosophies) and reassert 'object' and 'ontology' again, this time informed by the insights of the previous important (but, it turns out, arguably partial) critiques.
Some excerpts of Bryant's 9/30/10 blog post called "conditioned genesis":
"What, then, is conditioned genesis? The term 'conditioned' should be understood, I think, as a verb, 'to condition.' Something conditions something else when it affects that way through some sort of action. 'Genesis,' of course, refers to the production of something.... When the two terms are put together, you get the thesis that all entities are a product of their interactions with other entities. Contrast the wine grape approached in an Aristotlean manner from the wine grape approached in a Buddhist way. The Aristotlean would focus on the qualities of the grape: it is purple, round, has such and such a taste, etc. The Buddhist wouldn’t reject these qualities, but rather than drawing our attention towards the object taken in isolation would instead direct our attention outward, focusing on the relationships and interactions of the grape.
"The concept of conditioned genesis thus leads to a few conclusions as to the nature of reality or what being qua being is. First, it leads to the conclusion that there are no individuals in isolation, but rather that reality is a web or fabric in which all entities are interconnected and interactive. The metaphor of reality as a 'web' should be taken rather literally. When you encounter a spider web, if you pull one thread, the rest of the threads come with it. It is impossible to isolate one thread from all the other threads. They are all entangled with one another. So it follows, as a consequence, that nothing is the origin of itself. To be sure, discrete entities contribute something to their becoming, but they are never entirely their own authors. Second, as a consequence it is already a bit of a misnomer to speak of selves and things. Because beings belong to a fabric, mesh, or web of relations, authoriship is already and necessarily a complex event. Thus, for example, I am only one element in the writing of this post. This post is also necessarily authored by Morton (who’s pushed me to look more into Eastern thought), the texts I’ve read, the other things that have impacted me in my life, this computer, the internet, etc., etc., etc. Only a madman, as Lacan elsewhere suggests, would ever think she is the author of anything. Finally, third, insofar as being is interactive (conditioned genesis is, above all, a thesis about causality), it follows that for every event on the part of one object, this event produces reactions or effects in all other things. Those reactions or effects, in their turn, as events, produce effects and reactions in everything else. Thus, being or existence is necessarily characterized by ceaseless becoming.
"Now Morton has been writing a great deal lately about overlap between OOO and Buddhist thought. It is here that we get at the issue of squaring the circle. My question to Morton– and I do not pose it in an antagonistic spirit, by any means –is how it is possible to square the circle of endorsing the autonomy or independence of substances as OOO does, with the thesis of conditioned genesis? How is it possible to think these two things together. One of the aims of the eightfold way, I take it, is to abolish both the conception of self and things, so as to encounter reality as an anonymous fabric or web of interactive relationships. Yet this is precisely what OOO cannot do, for OOO insists on the irreducibility of substances in the sense described in my prior post today. Consequently, if we’re to go the Buddhist route Timothy is proposing, we require some substantial metaphysical revisions that both do justice to relation and substance. I am eager to hear how Morton squares this circle and am deeply sympathetic to the project."
"We can specify objects as such precisely because they do contain and take place within a 'galaxy' of relations (Graham’s word). Yet despite this, they exist.... This brings me on to the image of Indra's net, a traditional Buddhist description of reality....Can you imagine anything more relationist?... And yet, and yet. Why is there this dazzling, infinite reflectivity? Because there are jewels. Jewels, in the net! Jewels, not totally dissolved into their elements or into the ether of context! Infinite jewels with infinite facets!"
This post by Morton begins to answer Bryant's post above:
"Levi raises the crucial question. How the heck do I even begin to think that something as seemingly relationist and process oriented as Buddhism could be amenable to OOO?....it's true that the Theravadins developed a theory of interdependence.... Then the Mahayana crew showed up with their teachings on emptiness. They have some interesting arguments about this precise area. One of them is known as the 'tiny vajra' because it's so cute and small and devastating. One aspect of the tiny vajra's fourfold (!) argument is that if things are indeed reducible to other things, nothing would exist.... I translate 'empty' as 'withdrawn.'"
And Morton's post on Harman, Heidegger's fourfold and the relation to Buddhism.
"The 'higher' Buddhism goes* (sorry I'm biased), the more like OOO it seems. There is a rather rough and ready fit between Pratyekabuddhayana interdependence and tool-being. There is a much better fit between Mahayana emptiness and withdrawal vs. as-structure. And there is an almost perfect fit between Vajrayana emptiness–luminosity and the fourfold object."
* He's a shentong dong.
He's a shentong dong.
Well, of course!
Seriously, thanks for these posts -- they shine a good bit of light on my questions. More tomorrow.
As an aside for all you shentong dongs Morton defends that position in "Hegel on Buddhism."
In the comment to Morton's post on the fourfold, wherein Morton posits a fifth ("the way all of these go together"), the commenter notes the cross in the diagram as the fifth, that which relates them. And this is equivalent to Heidegger's crossed-out Being. Which is of course how I see differance. Bryant has his OOO version of this in "The time of the object" above, with my comments steering it in a more rangtong way.*
*But that is of course my bias as a rangtong dong. And we have the higher (bigger) dongs.
Morton's blog on the rang/shentong dong contest.