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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
The patron saint of this thread. Tidings of madness and woe to your and your kin in this malad(a)y season.
William Harryman posted the following video on his blog a short while back, which is worth watching in whole (if you're interested in physics, and particularly quantum physics), but there's a section in it which also reminded me of this thread. If you want to go directly to it, you can find it here (though watching everything prior to this point will give helpful context).
The section I'm referring to, which I've linked above, is entitled "Everything is connected to everything else." This sounds like a tenet of relationism, which OOO critiques, rather than OOO. But what he is describing is Pauli's exclusion principle, which basically says that no two electrons can ever have exactly the same energy level -- that electrons will avoid each other at all costs. This is reminiscent of the OOO notion that all objects withdraw from each other. But there's a twist here, because the electrons all "avoid" each other in a unique way: each must occupy a unique energy slot, which means each electron must be in constant communication with all other electrons in the universe at the same time, so that when one electron's state shifts, all others must shift as well (to ensure that no two electrons are ever at exactly the same energy level). If you rub your palms and heat up your hands, as he says, this subtly affects all electrons in the universe.
In my own layman's way, I've been saying I can't accept OOO's exclusionary withdrawal principle without also simultaneously embracing a relational view. Perhaps I'm reaching too much here, but this example from physics suggests to me one way we might imagine or visualize how both can be true at once (and are, in fact, co-implicated).
From Harman's chapter "On the undermining of objects" in The Speculative Turn:
"I propose a philosophy with no radix, no ultimate root or ultimate surface of the world, but a polarized philosophy in which the object is torn asunder from its traits in two different directions.... Objects...are the site of polarization, ambiguity, or weirdness. On the one hand objects are autonomous from all the features and relations that typify them, but on the other they are not completely autonomous" (24).
William Harryman posted the following video...
“Quantum theory...isn't a license to drivel....it doesn't therefore allow mystical healings or esp or any other manifestation of New Age woo woo” (starting a 4:40).
However, we see its hidden ontotheological woo woo when he says “it gives insight into the fundamental building blocks of the universe” (6:00).
Morton's 7/26 blog on QT:
"It has been further established that the speed of light is unbreaka.... This must mean that nonlocality does not involve signals faster than light. Thus what we call particles are epihenomenal. They are manifestations of some deeper substrate. QT has already ruled out various other possibilities (the most recent book on the subject is Anton Zeilinger's).
"Good news if you're a fan of David Bohm. And good news if you like my essay “Here Comes Everything.” This result is in line with my OOO speculation on quantum theory there."
I don't think Harman though would like this "deeper substrate."
Tom: I won't ever get with the withdrawal language, but I can do difference language...
I can relate to your distaste for (or philosophical disagreement with) the word, though I also find it an interesting and useful concept in some ways. I think the meaning intended by the word is that all objects, at any scale, exceed final determination or apprehension -- that no contact or encounter wholly exhausts objects for one another, nor wholly reveals objects to each other without remainder or "excess" (not only in the case of humans encountering or investigating objects, but in the case of all objects in relation with each other: there is always a dark side to objects, a hiddenness that exceeds or withdraws from the grasp of other objects.)
There are a number of ways an idea like this (a Heideggerian idea) can be held or interpreted. Perhaps difference gets at it well enough (especially if differing is taken actively, dynamically: this also suggests a kind of "withdrawing," a pulling away from or avoidance of absolute, final sameness). I've also thought, though, that Joel's positive infinity is also suggestive of this "excess," this non-finality in any-thing.
Theurj: However, we see its hidden ontotheological woo woo when he says “it gives insight into the fundamental building blocks of the universe” (6:00).
This "woo woo" is different (and perhaps subtler) than the woo woo he is critiquing. I wasn't bothered by his reference to this, though I agree that this is an example of Harman's undermining of objects -- and of foundationalism or ontotheology -- if we hold that such reduction to "fundamental building blocks" gives us the final or ultimate reality of all things, the final reality (as opposed to appearance). But on the other hand, while I like the move towards irreduction in Latour and the OOO crowd, the principle of irreduction says that we can nevertheless make (fruitful, if also loss-entailing) reductive generalizations, and I think pointing out that all physical objects consist of configurations of a relatively small number of basic particles is a legitimate and useful generalization or perspective (within the context of certain endeavors).
I think pointing out that all physical objects consist of configurations of a relatively small number of basic particles is a legitimate and useful generalization or perspective (within the context of certain endeavors).
Agreed. It's just when the interpretation of very useful paradigms like this get metaphysical that I raise my eyebrow and my grin becomes awry, my goat's plaintive bleating "humbug!"
This talk of quantum electrons led me to Bryant, who references Karen Barad, an advocate of Bohr's QM and who wrote Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement .... Here's one of her articles called "Quantum entanglements and hauntological relations" in Derrida Today 3.2 (2010): 240–268. The abstract:
"How much of philosophical, scientific, and political thought is caught up with the idea of continuity? What if it were otherwise? This paper experiments with the disruption of continuity. The reader is invited to participate in a performance of spacetime (re)configurings that are more akin to how electrons experience the world than any journey narrated though rhetorical forms that presume actors move along trajectories across a stage of spacetime (often called history). The electron is here invoked as our host, an interesting body to inhabit (not in order to inspire contemplation of flat-footed analogies between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ worlds, concepts that already presume a given spatial scale), but a way of thinking with and through dis/continuity – a dis/orienting experience of the dis/jointedness of time and space, entanglements of here and there, now and then, that is, a ghostly sense of dis/continuity, a quantum dis/continuity. There is no overarching sense of temporality, of continuity, in place. Each scene diffracts various temporalities within and across the field of spacetimemattering. Scenes never rest, but are reconfigured within, dispersed across, and threaded through one another. The hope is that what comes across in this dis/jointed movement is a felt sense of différance, of intra-activity, of agential separability – differentiatings that cut together/apart – that is the hauntological nature of quantum entanglements."
Another nice find, Ed. Karen Barad is someone Tom has recommended to us on several occasions (particularly back on the old forum). Her notion of dis/continuity is what I was getting from the video lecture I just posted -- neither simple continuity nor stark discontinuity, but both at once.
OOO is unapologetically metaphysical (I thought you would at least like that part!).
Harman (and Joel) both embrace infinite regress (but do not see it as problematic).
"This paper is about joins and disjoins – cutting together/apart – not separate consecutive activities, but a single event that is not one. Intra-action, not interaction. Center stage: the relationship of continuity and discontinuity, not one of negative opposition, but of im/possibilities.... They are not wholly separate, nor parts of a whole.... My hope is that what comes across in this dis/jointed movement is a felt sense of différance...that is the hauntological nature of quantum entanglements" (244-5).
I don't see this as seeking absolute particularity or generality.
Btw, metaphysics is fine if we define it as ontology. It's ontotheological metaphysics, i.e., metaphysics of a particular kind, that is not post-ontotheological metaphysics, or postmetaphysical for short.
I'm understanding why Bryant likes her:
"There are no separately determinate individual entities that interact with one another; rather, the co-constitution of determinately bounded and propertied entities results from specific intra-actions (see endnote 1).... Being is not simply present, there to be found, already given. There is no fixed essence or substance simply there for the measuring. Particles aren’t inherently bounded and propertied entities running in the void. Mattering is about the (contingent and temporary) becoming-determinate (and becoming-indeterminate)...without fixity, without closure. The conditions of possibility of mattering are also conditions of impossibility: intra-actions necessarily entail constitutive exclusions, which constitute an irreducible openness" (253-4).
"1. Intra-action is a key concept of agential realism (Barad 2007). In contrast to the usual ‘interaction’, the notion of intra-action recognises that distinct entities, agencies, events do not precede, but rather emerge from/through their intraaction. ‘Distinct’ agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute sense, that is, agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements. Importantly, intra-action constitutes a radical reworking of the traditional notion of causality" (267).