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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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 moving my last few posts in the translineage thread over here because I’ll be expanding on this with the perspectives of Wilber, Bryant and Edwards on the topic. A point Wilber makes is that a social holon doesn’t have a dominant monad like an individual. He uses Luhmann to support this, since social holons have a different kind of agency. While Bryant also uses Luhmann in making a similar distinction, nevertheless social holons have their own individual substance. Granted it’s not like an individual human’s but that’s one of his points; autonomous substance is a much broader general concept untainted by the kind of anthropomorphic epistemic fallacy within which Wilber frames it. I will also bring in Mark Edwards, who also shows that social holons are indeed autonomous and have 4 quadrants.
“This forum…is an object* in itself with a life of its own. And it is continually teaching all of us some new things and sloughing off some old things like the very in and out-breaths of any life. The forum is not in any quadrant but a full-fledged holon (suobject) with 4 quadrants, not just reduced to being an object in the old sense of being in a right-hand quadrant. Or something that can be looked at as a quadrivium. This is part of the problem with the little boxes of AQAL…. The suobject of which we are but parts. When someone says something here it is only partly a product of that individual, mostly coming from not only the interaction of the participants in dialog but from the irreducible and virtual proper being of the forum itself. And as you note, no, this is not projecting human being onto an inanimate object, for to even posit objects that way is itself ironically caught within the anthropomorphic epistemic fallacy.
“* He now prefers to calls them machines.
‘To illustrate Luhmann's thesis, I turn to the simple example of a humble dialogue. For the last few years I have been fortunate to have the friendship of my colleague Carlton Clark, a rhetorician at the institution where I teach. Within a Luhmannian framework, this dialogue is not a communication between two systems (Clark and myself), but rather is a system in its own right. In this respect, Clark and I belong not to the system of this dialogue, but to the environment of this dialogue.... The dialogue is an entity itself that constitutes its own elements (the communication events that take place within it) and that is something Clark and I are bound up in without being parts or elements within the dialogue.’
“* See p. 50 and following. He even goes into a similar discussion about Luhmann on 60 and following.”
In the referenced TDOO chapter Bryant makes a distinction between the elements of a substance with substances proper. The elements are not substances but rather are the stuff that substances create and organize in their endo-relations, i.e., elements "are not ontically pre-given." Elements are also not the material parts of a substance, for they are continually replaced. Again the elements are those endo-relations themselves that a substance creates within its organization.
"Elements are always elements for a substance. They only exist as elements within the endo-structure or endo-composition of a system and do not, as we have seen, have any independent ontological existence of their own. Substances, by contrast, always enjoy an autonomous ontological existence in their own right, and therefore only exist in relations that are external to them. That is, substances are capable of breaking with their relations and entering into new relations, or of existing completely without relations at all."
Based on this "humans are not part of society." We are not elements as outlined above, as we are suobjects with substance. (Or is that suobstance?) Hence only communications are inside society as the elements organized via endo-relations; we are on the outside. Hence the quote provided in the preceding post about dialog.
Now the endo-relations of any suobject, individual or social, is not the same as how suobjects can also be nested within other more inclusive suobjects. While elements are subsumed within a subobject, per above the smaller suobjects are not themselves subsumed parts of the larger but rather subsist within the environment of the larger suobject. Hence they retain their autonomous substance. He not only uses the human-society example above but also how cells are nested in larger bodies. Hence there is no giant assholon of which all are subsumed as parts.
Now Wilber has a similar notion for social holons in excerpt C, but it is starkly distinguished from individual holons that maintain a dominant monad. And such monads have a transcend-and-include interior, where the constituent suobjects within larger suobjects are subsumed within the larger or higher ruling authority. Wilber intuits there is a difference here but doesn't have the distinction between elements and substances. And as a consequence there is not only a dominant monad for individual holons but also a super holon of everything (assholon) that provides the ruling authority-theory of everything, and within which everything is unified.
It just dawned on me that another consequence is that Kennilingam is a dominant gonad!
Now on one of the other tentacles (with Cthulhu in mind) Kennilingam is on to something with dominant monads (DM).
Granted for him only sentient holons have them but still there are similarities with Bryant's substance. DMs are a "locus of prehension" (C, 57). But then he gets all anthropomorphic about it, or at least sentient-morphic. In arguing against a DM for social holons it is because they do not have a "dominant 'super-I' that is aware of and controls all its parts (56).* If he'd just stick to the locus of prehension and Luhmann, something Bryant does, his DM would be more akin to Bryant's substance. But with his usual metaphysical flair there has got to be something transcendent in DMs that distinguish them from mere insentient matter.
Edwards addresses the sentient/insentient split, as well as the individual/social split in numerous of his writings, where I'll go next as time permits.
* Wow, talk about a metaphysics of presence: aware and in control of all its parts? Bryant doesn't go anywhere near that far with substance and endo-relations, given his inclusion of the withdrawn.
These are good points, Ed. I was thinking about Edwards' work last night, and had started dipping in to his "Through AQAL Eyes" essays again. About Bryant's work, I wonder how he would relate his alethetic borromean knot to this question. In other words, this forum has the ring he labels, "real," in that this forum cannot be reduced to any of our perceptions of it. But does a forum, or a dialogue, as an entity or object, have the "Imaginary" ring as well?
Per this post Bryant defines the imaginary thus:
"The imaginary would be the manner in which that entity grasps, perceives, or relates to other entities. This would be the domain of what Harman has called 'sensual objects' (which are objects that only exist on the interior of a real object). Thus, for example, the bat does not encounter the insect as the insect is, but as a sonic signature, a sonic wave that has a particular meaning for it."
From chapter 4.1 of TDOO, in describing this for a dialog:
"This dialogue continually makes self-references (references to events that are within the dialogue and communications that have been made in the past of the dialogue) and other-references (references to the environment of the dialogue). In other words, the dialogue is organized around what is internal to the dialogue itself, to the system that has emerged over time, and to what is outside the dialogue or in the environment of the dialogue constituted by the dialogue itself....Over the course of this lengthy dialogue, the dialogue as a system has evolved its own distinctions, themes, topics, and ways of handling these themes and topics.... The distinctions inhabiting the dialogue are the implicit ways in which these themes and topics are handled or the meaning schema that regulate the dialogue. Events in the environment of the dialogue can perturb or irritate the dialogue, providing stimuli for new communicative events.... In this respect, the dialogue is an entity itself that constitutes its own elements (the communication events that take place within it)."
On another (but related) note, I'm reading an interesting chapter by Sloterdijk right now, where he is discussing the doctrine of the Trinity and the notion of perichoresis in depth. Therein, he notes that these theologians attempted to think an intersubjective model which was free of "container"-thinking, where the persons do not exist in a pre-given space or time but, in an important sense, are generative of their place, of their spacetime. This reminds me of Harman's and Bryant's discussions of objects as producing or constituted by object-related spacetimes. There is an intriguing overlap here, which I will take some time to reflect on, but also some important differences with Trinitarian notions of the gapless coinherence of the persons of God.
Edwards discusses insentience in Through AQAL Eyes, Part I. This distinction is contrary to the AQAL notion that all holons have development both on the inside and outside. Granted so-called insentient holons like a desert or a heap might have a very large and nebulous boundary, and take long spans of time to show development, still those characteristics are there. The following sounds a lot like Bryant's internal and external patterning described above about dialog.
"All entities, systems, processes, events and activities will always, therefore, have some characteristic form of internal and external patterning around which we can draw valid holonic boundaries when we wish to see, experience or investigate them in a true developmental context."
Later in this essay he deals with the individual/social split.
"Social holons have an individuality and a unity that is completely unique to that social holon."
Again it sounds like Bryant's dialog. He also gives the example of the human body, considered a individual holon yet could just as easily be considered a social holon, given the plethora of life-forms that reside therein.
"Similarly the behaviour of groups can be understood in some instances only when it is regarded as an individual holon and as a single system."
Now one question I have--I have several but for now this one--can the elements of a suobject's substance, which themselves do not have substance, be considered holons? If we define something as an autonomous suobject, whether sentient or insentient, whether individual or social, and elements as defined by Bryant are without such autonomous substance, can they nevertheless be holons? In a way it seems Bryant is also distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate singularities based on their powers of organization. Edwards sees these organizational powers as the defining characteristic of holons. Bryant see substanceless elements as the organizational structure of endo-relations.
I was asking myself a similar question. Regarding a human suobject, I am not clear what Bryant means by insubstantial elements -- do you think he means something like thoughts? At first, I thought not, since I seemed to recall him mentioning thoughts as objects, but in this chapter (4), he does discuss Harman's imaginary "Monster X" as an internal system state that is not withdrawn. I'm curious about this latter claim (that a thought is not withdrawn, and the related claims that it doesn't exist when we aren't thinking it, and that it isn't an object that can be affected by other objects in the world)...this seems off to me. More later.
I'm not sure yet what exactly he means by elements. Since both Bryant and Wilber use Luhmann as a source I figure why not go to the horse's mouth? I just started Luhmann's article "The autopoeisis of social systems," with this opening paragraph:
"The term 'autopoiesis' has been invented to define life; its origin is clearly biological. Its extension to other fields has been discussed, but rather unsuccessfully and on the wrong premises. The problem may well be that we use a questionable approach to the issue, 'tangling' our 'hierarchies' of investigation."
Of interest in the opening paragraphs is the distinction between living and non-living systems, or as Wilber puts it, sentient and insentient. Luhmann thinks autopoeisis can be extended to non-living systems and therefore seeks to find general characteristics common to both, while also acknowledging that they have differences as well. Hence not to confuse or conflate their different 'hierarchies.' Understandably this is where Wilber makes the distinction as well, noting the different ways they are structured while both containing 'holons' of a sort.