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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
Interesting; I had missed the Tulku reference in my scan of those pages. I am a bit slammed (at both jobs) at the moment, so I haven't had much time for reading or writing. More later (hopefully this weekend).
I am reminded yet again from Levin's references above of the real/false reason thread. Levin is also one who sees the need to hearken back to more fully integrate the pre-rational emotions and body, where as the cogscipragos have ascertained lies our more direct connections to the environmental field at large. And that said instrumental reason, while perhaps a necessary evolution, in itself is a "false" reason according to L&J, in that in its separation from the body/emotions it creates this abstract, dual, metaphysical world of ideal forms. L&J's research shows that "real" reason is one that is indeed embodied, and as such connects us back to that field at large. Other references in that thread also point to how so-called postformal operations, according to the hierarchists, is just so much more complexity piled on top of this disembodied instrumental rationality. Whereas those enacting so-called postformal operations talk much more about the kinds on integration we're seeing in the likes of Levin, Derrida, Caputo, OOO, etc.
That's why I now prefer the term transformal for this more fully integrated and proportional centaur. I agree with Kennilingam in that any level can break off into dissociation and to me that's what happened with the complexity crowd. The more hierarchical and kennilingus centaur has a human head so large and out of proportion as to be comical, its legs skinny and weak, incapable of supporting such superfluous narcissism. Just ask a dancer where our root and connection to the field lies.
Perhaps here you are using a very particular :-) meaning of 'tacit,' which doesn't align with some of its more common uses (in Bohm, Varela, etc), where there can be an embodied, pre-(or non-)verbal knowing that is 'tacit' but nevertheless not without specificity: tacit knowledge of how to ride a bike (one of Bohm's examples), etc.
Michael at Archive Fire directed me to his post on withdrawal, objects and processes. A sample:
"Where I think OOO goes too far (at least with Harman and Tim Morton) is where they assign absolute identities to such potent beings to an extent where there is an imposition of metaphysical boundaries that do not actually exist. Now, to be fair, the understanding of the term 'object' varies greatly among the OOO enthusiasts – which, in effect, serves to stretch the term beyond any ordinary linguistic coherence. But what unites these thinkers is a willingness to advocate for the 'complete' or 'total' withdrawal of all objects/assemblages from each other and even from themselves. This radical boundary-making, I suggest, can only obscure the already complicated project of investigating BOTH the assembled efficacy and individuality of entities (their onto-specific potency, or 'being') and their fully implicated, material-energetic, processual, embedded and temporal relations (their 'becomings') simultaneously. I argue, counter-intuitively perhaps, that it is the onto-specific substantially of entities and assemblages that should caution us to avoid universally characterizing such complexities as 'objects' or 'relations' – and talk more specifically about particular admixtures, alliances, complexes, distributed realities and the ecosystems they enact."
Also see Bryant's referenced post in the above. A sample:
"It seems to me that one of the single greatest challenges that proponents of withdrawn objects face is this charge of proposing an empty metaphysical abstraction that makes no difference. I resolve to treat the object as withdrawn from all relations such that we have no access to it whatsoever (this is not, incidentally, my concept of withdrawal). In this way I seek to preserve the object form all erasure under relation. Yet in doing this, what has happened? Have I not won a Pyrrhic victory? Insofar as I’ve claimed that the object is withdrawn from all relation and access, I’m also led to the claim that nothing can be said of the object qua object because the object is withdrawn. As a consequence, the object becomes, at the level of concepts, an empty point. As thoroughly withdrawn, I am unable to say anything of the object."
Yes, such a move ends up effecting the erasure it seeks to avoid.
In light of recent posts in some of the other threads, in one of kela's blog posts he says this:
“Mahayana Buddhists and Advaita Vedantins both acknowledge nirvikalpa-pratyaksha (direct, non-conceptual perception or 'intuition' ). But they do not agree, as their Naiyayika detractors point out, on what it is that this nirvikalpa-pratyaksha is apprehending. For the Advaitin it is absolute being, or the most universal generality, while for the Suatrantika-Yogacharin it is the pure particular (svalakshana) shorn of all generality.”
This pure particular sounds reminiscent of OOO's autonomous object, and ironically coming from a particular Yogacharin school. We discussed this a bit in our prior Gaia discussion on the myth of the given. This source notes that the pure particular is ontologically “something absolutely unique, singular and, most important, momentary.....ultimately real and inexpressible,” yet available to perception. Whereas epistemologically we apprehend via inference and concept, which provides universal generalizations and relative reality. Like kela the author notes it depends on which school's interpretation is used for pure particulars. The Sautrantikas see them as mind-independent, the Yogacharins not. And apparently Dignaga and Dharmakirti went back and forth between interpretations depending on context, hence the Suatrantika-Yogacharin fusion.
I'm not a Harman apologist -- I'm just getting to know his work, and there are a number of elements of it that I also have doubts about or which seem untenable to me -- but I think Harman's (OOO) view is perhaps a bit subtler than just saying objects are wholly withdrawn and unknowable. I'll attempt to represent his view (though I can't guarantee my accuracy here). Following Heidegger, Harman argues that objects have a fourfold nature -- an asymmetrical play between real and sensual object natures and real and sensual qualities. A real object is not equivalent, in Harman's view, to one's perception of it, or even to its own self-perception. Knowing never catches or touches the real object. What knowing or perception deals with is sensual objects and sensual qualities. Real objects and sensual objects are not different things; a chair, a cat, a person are simultaneously real and sensual objects with real and sensual qualities. A real object (chair, cat, person) is non-conceptual: it is what it is, and it is possible to be a real object (actually, that's what we are, and what everything is), but not to directly know a real object. When others encounter us, they never meet me-in-my-ownbeing (real-object-me); they meet me-in-relation, which is me-as-sensual-object. He argues that we need to posit a withdrawn real object nature in addition to a relational sensual object nature, though; something real that exceeds, and does not depend for its ontological existence on, any particular knowing encounter or observation. He bases this in part on Bhaskar's work in philosophy of science: science would not get off the ground, and would have no project at all, if reality was identical to (and fully exhausted by) our present perceptions, or no more than (no deeper than) an observer-generated construct. So, he doesn't say objects are simply or only unknown or withdrawn; rather, he says that objects are both known/knowable and unknown -- all around us, displaying sensual qualities (as sensual objects-in-relation) and acting in the world (as real objects or ontological presences), but never completely reducible to, or identical with, "what we know."
Yes, although Harman criticizes Kant, his model seems to be an extension or development of Kant's distinction between the noumenal thing-in-iteself and the phenomenal thing-as-known. Technically, for Kant and Harman, objectness is not just thing-in-itselfness, but thing-in-itselfness and thing-for-otherness. The thing-in-itself part of that view is, of course, something we've critiqued extensively on this forum (particularly, I believe, back on its Gaia version).
One way he seems to differ from Kant, as far as I can tell, is that he follows systems views in seeing things-in-themselves as systemic emergents: a real object, depending on and emerging from, its constituent parts, but in its objectness it is an emergent reality that is greater than, and irreducible to, its parts. I think he is following Latour's principle of irreduction. Both Harman and Latour are interested in defending emergent particulars from approaches which attempt to reduce objects (here, meaning any form or process or actuality at all) to other things, in a way which undermines or erases them (scientifically: what is real is not this particular X, but its underlying parts or processes; or spiritually/metaphysically: individual X's are not real or primary, as they are each only momentary and illusory expressions of a universal Real).
I am sympathetic to the desire to protect people, trees, moths, chairs, states, feelings, etc, from philosophical undermining or overmining, but I think there might be other ways to 'preserve' the integrity of particulars than this.
Concerning the principle of irreduction, I think I could take a note from Joel, for instance, and argue that the object's so-called withdrawnness is a function of its infinite reducibility, after his principle of absolute reversal: Infinite Reducibility = Irreducibility.
principle of absolute reversal: Infinite Reducibility = Irreducibility.
The reminds me of my old t'ai chi training. Yin and yang must be clearly differentiated and balanced in mind, body and deed. Theoretically when yin for example is 100% and yang 0% then yin transforms into yang.* And yet practically in the body and between bodies this never happens, as they must always be clearly differentiated to maintain balance. If I were to put 100% of my weight forward with no countervailing backward counterweight then I would lose balance and fall on my face. Even in yielding to an attack one must adhere to their opponent with at least 4 ounces of pressure** to be able to read his force, trajectory, etc. Complete yielding results in losing touch with the opponent and in being pushed over. Hence something just doesn't seem right to me with these theoretical notions that one becomes the other at the extreme poles. And why I tend to prefer the always already in relation between opposing forces which are never completely the same, completely different, and never completely transform or reduce into the other. We also see this at play with Harman above in his fourfold of 2 polarities, with ever-shifting dynamic balance being the integrating factor.
* We might say this only happens on extreme ends of an abstract hierarchy which posits such absolutes. Whereas for L&J hierarchies start in the middle with the concrete basic categories closest to lived experience and work their way out to the edges, hence providing concrete balance to otherwise metaphysical premises.
** Hence the yin/yang diagram always contains a small seed of opposition in the predominating black area and vice versa. This small seed indicates there is never 100% of one or the other lest they lose connection and fly off into metaphysical heights and depths, primordial substance or being.
Also you might find of interest Michael's Archive Fire blog post on ontological intimacy, wherein he says, quoting Adam:
"“I would like to suggest that we can frame this discussion within two conceptions of withdrawal: absolute and contingent (the first associated with the work of Tim Morton and Graham Harman, the second with Michael and Levi Bryant).”
Don't forget part 1 of the above, where Bryant "skillfully differentiate[s] his own understanding of withdrawal from Graham Harman’s by further articulating philosophical commitments consistent with a move towards integrating process-relational thinking with object-orientated investigations."