Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
In my research today I came upon this interesting article, “Here comes everything: the promise of object-oriented ontology” by Timothy Morton. (New link, old one broken.) It is of interest not only to speculative realism but also to some recent discussions on Caputo's ontology, modes of apprehension of such, and quantum theory. The article is 27 pages of text so I've culled some excerpts, lengthy in themselves.
Speculative realism...asserts the deep mystery of a Non-Nature....object-oriented ontology (OOO)...goes further than this, rejecting essentialist Matter.... OOO is a form of realism that asserts that real things exist--these things are objects, not just amorphous “Matter”.... OOO extends Husserl's and Heidegger's arguments that things have an irreducible dark side: no matter how many times we turn over a coin, we never see the other side as the other side--it will have to flip onto “this” side for us to see it, immediately producing another underside. Harman simply extends this irreducible darkness from subject–object relationships to object–object relationships.... Causation is thus vicarious in some sense, never direct. An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either.... We've become so used to hearing “object” in relation to “subject” that it takes some time to acclimatize to a view in which there are only objects, one of which is ourselves.
The notion of the “withdrawal” of objects extends my term strange stranger to non-living entities. Strange stranger names an uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life forms. Life forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another--the strangeness is irreducible....the uncanny essence of humans that Heidegger contemplates extends to nonhumans.... The more we know about a strange stranger, the more she (he, it) withdraws. Objects withdraw such that other objects never adequately capture but only (inadequately) “translate” them....This is what “irreducible” means.
Rhetoric is not simply ear candy for humans: indeed, a thorough reading of Plato, Aristotle and Longinus suggests that rhetoric is a technique for contacting the strange stranger....[it] amplifies imagination rather than trying to upstage it, and it revels in dislocation, not location.... Harman's imagery differs from ecophenomenological ecomimesis that confirms the localized position of a subject with privileged access to phenomena.... Harman's rhetoric produces an object-oriented sublime that breaks decisively with the Kantian taboo on noncorrelationist scientific speculation....ekphrasis is not about the reaction of the (human) subject, but about rhetorical modes as affective-contemplative techniques for summoning the alien.
The aesthetic, as we shall see, is the secret door through which OOO discovers a theory of what is called “subject”.... Melancholia is precisely a mode of intimacy with strange objects that can't be digested by the subject.... To lapse into Californian, OOO is so about the subject. There is no good reason to be squeamish about this. The more the ekphrasis zaps us, the more we fall back into the gravity well of melancholy. Sentience is out of phase with objects, at least if you have a nervous system. So melancholia is the default mode of subjectivity: an object-like coexistence with other objects and the otherness of objects--touching them, touching the untouchable, dwelling on the dark side one can never know, living in endless twilight shadows. If the reader has experienced grief she or he will recognize this state as an object-like entity that resides somewhere within the body, with an amortization schedule totally separated from other temporalities (in particular, the strict digital clock time of contemporary life). Through the heart of subjectivity rolls an object-like coexistence, none other than ecological coexistence--the ecological thought fully-fledged as dark ecology . The inward, withdrawn, operationally closed mood called melancholy is something we shake off at our peril in these dark ecological times.
Melancholy starts to tell us the truth about the withdrawn qualities of objects. OOO thus differs from theistic ecophilosophy that asserts, “There is a Nature.” It maintains no absolute distance between subject and object; it limits “subject” to no entity in particular. Žižek's suspicion of SR to do with the “feminine” self-absorption of objects: precisely what he doesn't like about Buddhism. Changing “self-absorption” to “withdrawal” or “operational closure” discloses what's threatening about Buddhism: an object-like entity at the core of what is called subjectivity. Like ecomimesis, Harman's passage affirms a real world beyond mentation. Unlike ecomimesis, this world doesn't surround a subject--it's a world without reference to a subject.
If OOO construes everything as objects, some may believe that it would have a hard time talking about subjects--indeed, Slavoj Žižek has already criticized SR in general along these lines. This subjectivity is profoundly ecological and it departs from normative Western ideas of the subject as transcendence. Thus we see off Nature and its correlate, the (human) subject. I argue that OOO enjoins us to drop Matter just as we must drop Nature, and that this means that it can save the appearance of the most coherent and testable physical theory we have, namely quantum theory.
Let's turn our attention to... things....how far “down things” does OOO really go? Are these things made of some kind of substrate, some kind of unformed matter? Does “withdrawal” mean that objects are impenetrable in some non-figurative, nonhuman sense? Do objects have a spatial “inside”? Surely they might. But the principle of irreducibility must mean that this inside is radically unavailable. It's not simply a case of the right equipment passing through it, like a knife through butter. Even a knife through butter would not access the butter in all its essential butteriness. The proliferation of things that ecology talks about--from trees to nuclear power--do not compromise a holistic Nature. Nor yet are they comprised of some intrinsic, essential stuff. To dispatch Matter, we must explore the most rigorous and testable theory of physical Matter we know: quantum theory.
Unlike some thinkers who discovered OOO in spite of deconstruction, I backed into OOO through deconstruction. SR tends to mistake deconstruction for nominalism, subjectivism and Meillassoux's correlationism.... Contemporary physics concurs with a principle tenet of Lacan and Derrida: there's no “big Other,” no device, for instance, that could measure quantum phenomena without participating in these phenomena. All observations are inside the system, or as Derrida puts it, “There is nothing outside the text” (or, in Gayatri Spivak's alternative, which I prefer, “There is no outside-text”). Arkady Plotnitsky has traced the affinities between deconstruction and quantum physics. People commonly misconstrue “there is no-outside-text” as nominalism: we can only know things by their names. Far more drastically, the axiom means: (1) Any attempt to establish rigid boundaries between reality and information results in unsustainable paradoxes; (2) Language is radically nonhuman--even when humans use it. It would be a mistake to hold that (1) is correlationism. “There is no outsidetext” occurs in a passage in which Derrida is analyzing Rousseau's position on Nature, so it's worth pausing here since this issue is directly relevant to ecocriticism. Derrida tacks close to the text he’s analyzing, which is why he appeals to close readers in the first place. He is not making a sweeping generalization about reality. Derrida is only saying, “Given the kind of closed system textuality that Rousseau prescribes, there is no outside-text.” That is, Rousseau can’t go around making claims about nature, not because there is nothing out there, but because the way he models thinking sets textuality up as a black hole....[but] Derrida abstained from ontology: he considered it tainted by the generalization-disease. Unfortunately this defaults to various forms of antirealism. Derrida's is a sin of omission.... OOO shares one thing at least with deconstruction--refraining from assertions about some general essence or substance at the back of things that guarantees their existence.
OOO is troubling for materialisms that rely on any kind of substrate, whether it consists of discrete atoms or of a continuum.... Certain uncontroversial facts, demonstrable in highly repeatable experiments, shatter essentialist prejudices concerning Matter.... Quantum phenomena are not simply hard to access or only partially “translated” by minds and other objects. They are irreducibly withdrawn.
OOO is form of realism, not materialism. In this it shares affinities with quantum theory. Antirealism pits quantum theory against its opponents, since quantum theory supposedly shows reality is fuzzy or deeply correlated with perception and so forth. In fact, quantum theory is the only existing theory to establish firmly that things really do exist beyond our mind (or any mind). Quantum theory positively guarantees that real objects exist! Not only that--these objects exist beyond one another. Quantum theory does this by viewing phenomena as quanta, as discrete “units” as described in Unit Operations by OOO philosopher Ian Bogost. “Units” strongly resemble OOO “objects.” Thinking in terms of units counteracts problematic features of thinking in terms of systems. A kind of systems thinking posed significant problems for nineteenth-century physicists. Only consider the so-called black body radiation problem. Classical thermodynamics is essentially a systems approach that combines the energy of different waves to figure out the total energy of a system. The black box in question is a kind of oven. As the temperature in the oven increases, results given by summing the wave states according to classical theory become absurd, tending to infinity.
By seeing the energy in the black box as discrete quanta (“units”), the correct result is obtained. Max Planck's discovery of this approach gave birth to quantum theory. Now consider perception, for the sake of which antirealism usually cites quantum theory. What does quantum theory show about our mental interactions with things? Perceptual, sensual phenomena such as hardness and brilliance are at bottom quantum mechanical effects. I can't put my hand through this table because it is statistically beyond unlikely that the quanta at the tip of my finger could bust through the resistance wells in the quanta on the table's surface. That's what solidity is. It's an averagely correct experience of an aggregate of discrete quanta. This statistical quality, far from being a problem, is the first time humans have been able to formalize supposedly experiential phenomena such as solidity. What some people find disturbing about quantum theory (once in a gajillion times I can put my finger through the table) is precisely evidence for the reality of things. (This is a version of an argument in Meillassoux, AF 82–5).
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. In other words quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant (mis)translation of one quantum by another. Thus when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”--not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)--makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded (QT 99–115). Observation is as much part of the Universe of objects as the observable, not some ontologically different state (say of a subject). More generally, what Niels Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum. Just as a focusing lens makes one object appear sharper while others appear blurrier, one quantum variable comes into sharp definition at the expense of others (QT 158–61). This isn't about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. Some phenomena are irreducibly undecidable, both wavelike and particle-like. The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level. OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate and testable theory of physical reality available. Again, it would be better to say it the other way around: quantum theory works because it's object-oriented.
Probing the quantum world, then, is a form of auto-affection. Bohr argued that quantum phenomena don't simply concatenate themselves with their measuring devices. They're identical to it: the equipment and the phenomena form an indivisible whole (QT 139–40, 177). This “quantum coherence” applies close to absolute zero, where particles become the “same” thing.
Implication and explication suggest Matter being enfolded and unfolded from something deeper. Even if it were the case that OOO should defer to physics, in the terms set by physics itself objects aren't made “of” any one thing in particular. Just as there is no top level, there may be no bottom level that is not an (substantial, formed) object.
To this extent, “object” (as a totally positive entity) is a false immediacy. Positive assertions about objects fail because objects have a shadowy dark side, a mysterious interiority like the je ne sais quoi of Kantian beauty. Is this nothing at all? Is there a path from the carnival of things to a bleak nothingness? Nihilism, believing that you have no beliefs, maintains that things emerge from an impenetrable mystery. Nihilism, the cool kids' religion, shuns the inconveniences of intimacy. We have objects--they have us--under our skin. They are our skin. OOO can't be a form of nihilism. It's the opposite view (relationism) that tends towards nihilism. Relationism holds that objects are nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects. This begs the question of what an object is, since the definition implies a potential infinite regress: what are the “other objects”? Why, nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects--and so on ad obscurum. At least OOO takes a shot at saying what objects are: they withdraw. This doesn't mean that they don't relate at all. It simply means that how they appear has a shadowy, illusory, magical, “strangely strange” quality. It also means they can't be reduced to one another. OOO holds that strangeness is impossible if objects are reducible to their relations. Since relationism is hamstrung by its reluctance to posit anything, it tends towards obscurantism. Relationism is stuck in a Euthyphronic dilemma: objects consist of relations between other objects—and what are those objects? An object as such is never defined. So while ecological criticism appears to celebrate interconnectedness, it must in the end pay attention to what precisely is interconnected with what.
This radical finitude includes a strange irreducible openness.
I'm not fully on board with OOO, either, and have expressed a number of these reservations in the 40+ pages of this thread, but at least it has softened me to metaphysics. :-)
Here's a brief discussion of some of Bhaskar's notions that inform the OOO project.
From the concluding section (6.3) of TDOO:
"Rather than treating one type of object such as quantum particles as the really real upon which all else is grounded and to which all else ultimately reduces, flat ontology advocates a pluralism of types of objects at all levels of scale that are irreducible to one another. In other words, objects of different types and at different levels of scale are what Aristotle referred to as genuine primary substances."
I expect this view is related to Latour's principle of irreduction. You can read a summary of it in Prince of Networks, starting about the middle of page 14.
Except that, as noted on p. 16, Latour reduces irreducible objects to the actual, when both Bryant and Bhaskar deduce the hidden depths of the real.
On a side note, I just skipped ahead to the final chapter of PoN, and it looks like a good, concise summary of OOO (at least Harman's version).
The chapter on OOO in PON has a lot on which to comment but for now this statement caught my eye:
"Quantum theory has certain problems accounting for black holes" (184).
Harman here uses the metaphor of black holes being akin to the withdrawn nature of objects. And this article discusses the quantum problem with black holes.
The chapter really is a good summary of basic OOO arguments. When I have time on my upcoming break, I'm going to spend some time with this chapter and write up a response to it.
We discussed this upstream about Bryant:
"Whereas a thing is completely independent of its relations, it is not completely independent of its own pieces" (PON 188).
Ah, yes. Good find. I am not sure I accept this argument, however; I still feel resistant to it. I am doubtful we need to embrace an autistic ontology in order to maintain the integrity of things. The argument is that objects are independent of their relations because they can be moved to any environment, but couldn't you also say that an object can be moved to many different environments because its relationships (and relatability) are not confined to its immediate locale? Also, isn't it true that, at the least for organisms, their parts come from outside and so are dependent on external relationships as well? Perhaps we could follow Latour's convention (all objects are equally real but not all are equally strong) and say that all objects are equal in being related but not all relations are equally strong? (Which could be paired with a correlate claim, all objects exhibit closure but not all closure is equal -- thinking here of the difference, for instance, between cold and warm blooded animals in relationship to fluctuations in temperature in the environment...)
I'm enjoying engaging with this material in part because it helps expose my own commitments. One of my concerns with the OOO thesis of absolutely cut-off, independent objects, each in its own vacuum seal, is that it seems to philosophically undergird (and could amplify) the guiding orientation that has arguably contributed to our current ecological and other crises: we are all stand-alone actors, wholly independent of and unrelated to our intersu/objective contexts. Every man for himself. What happens to the world doesn't happen to me, in my essence. If I trash one environment, I can just move myself to the next.
I don't think OOO thinkers intend to support such an orientation, and I'm open to the possibility that OOO can be used to support an orientation that is not so problematic (for our well being and survival), but at present, it does seem to me that this could be an unintended consequence of OOO's current emphases and metaphysical commitments.
As I mentioned, I'm not convinced by the argument that an object is completely independent of all external relations and is dependent only on its own parts. Have you ever taken an archeology course, where they teach you how to "read" bones for information about not only the creature, but its environment, its relations, its interactions, etc? Or how to read a tree or deep ice core sample for information about the state of the world at that time? The world appears "written" into the very form of the individual object.
To outline an alternative view, by contrast with OOO, which I would like to weigh in relation to OOO, here's a brief passage from Swimme:
The cosmogenetic principle states that the evolution of the universe will be characterized by differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion throughtout time and space and at every level of reality. These three terms -- differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion -- refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence, and thus are beyond any simply one-line univocal definition...
These three features are not "logical" or "axiomatic" in that they are not deductions within some larger theoretical framework. They come from a post hoc evaluation of cosmic evolution; these three will undoubtedly be deepened and altered in the next era as future experience expands our present understanding....
Cosmogenesis is organized by differentiation... [Snip]
Cosmogenesis is organized by autopoiesis... [Snip]
Cosmogenesis is organized by communion. To be is to be related, for relationship is the essence of existence. In the very first instant when the primitive particles rushed forth, every one of them was connected to every other one in the entire universe. At no time in the future existence of the universe would they ever arrive at a point of disconnection. Alienation for a particle is a theoretical impossibility. For galaxies, too, relationships are the fact of existence. Each galaxy is directly connected to the hundred billion galaxies of the universe, and there will never come a time when a galaxy's destiny does not involve each of the galaxies in the universe. Nothing is itself without everything else. Our Sun emerged into being out of the creativity of so many millions of former beings. The elements of the floating presolar cloud had been created by former stars and by the primeval fireball. The activating shock wave would have been ineffectual but for the web of relationships within the galactive community. The patterns of nuclear resonances enabling stable nuclear burning was not the Sun's invention -- and yet all that followed depended upon this patter of interconnectivity in which the Sun arose.
The universe evolves into beings that are different from each other, and that organize themselves. But in addition to this, the universe advances into community -- into a differentiated web of relationships among sentient centers of creativity. The next chapters celebrate the reality of interrelatedness, especially within Earth and life. For here, to complete our introduction to these general themes of the universe's story, we will simply mention that the relationships are discovered, even more than they are forged.
An unborn grizzly bear sleeps in her mother's womb. Even there in the dark with her eyes closed, this bear is already related to the outside world. She will not have to develop a taste for blackberries or for Chinook salmon. When her tongue first mashes the juice of the blackberry, its delight will be immediate. No prolonged period of learning will be needed for the difficult task of snaring a spawning salmon. In the very shape of her claws is the musculature, anatomy, and leap of the Chinook. The face of the bear, the size of her arm, the structure of her eyes, the thickness of her fur -- these are dimensions of her temperate forest community. The bear herself is meaningless outside this enveloping web of relations.
This sense of relatedness coming even before a first interaction, of a community reality at the base of being, characterizes even the earliest eras in the natural world. At this level quantum nonseparability governs activity. No two particles can be considered completely disconnected, ever. The particles in the fireball rise into existence in a direct and unmediated relationship with the rest of the particles in existence. This primal contact or togetherness of things represents the third systemic feature of evolution, through all the branches of its adventure.
I have heretofore been a proud, admitted (co)relationist. Still am, for the most part. I too am trying to examine my own commitments through OOO, trying to remain open and perhaps stretch a bit beyond my intransigent position. I also just cannot accept that an object can be completely withdrawn from all external relations just because it indeed has a withdrawn aspect. But I'm also coming to see how inadequate my prior relational view has been concerning the autonomy aspect of an object, how absolutely unique each object is, how singular it is.
I had some notion of this via Derrida's writings on singularity, but he too seemed to frame it within contextual relations with a lack of the kind of ontological commitment inherent in OOO autonomy. I.e. it seemed, like Bryant criticizes, more of an epistemological commitment, that one could never know the thing(object)-in-itself due to this correlational divide. Which of course has been part of my own postmetaphysical commitment, meaning post ontological claims about an object apart from a subject. OOO is helping me to see that postmetaphysics doesn't have to means sans metaphysics as ontology. Yet OOO still seems to be postmetaphysical in terms of being post foundationalism, post essence, post transcendence in the sense of that sort of duality (versus polarity).
Joel shared this on FB. :-)