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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
Reading Edwards' Through AQAL Eyes again, where he argues that holon is an epistemological category, I am entertaining the idea of an approach which uses the word, 'holon,' in the epistemological way that Edwards argues, and 'object' in the ontological way that OOO folks argue. In other words, rather than reifying 'holon' to make it an Integral synonym of 'object' (we've discussed before how that is problematic in various ways), it might be useful to reserve 'object' (or some other word, such as entity or body or being) for speculative ontology mode, and to use it in parallel with 'holon' in integral epistemological mode. Playful ways of framing this: holons and objectons; holons and black-holons (the latter referring to objects with withdrawn cores)...
Hmm, it seems for Luhmann that indeed thoughts are the basic elements in conscious systems, as communications are for social systems. And he means basic elements, not holons, for such elements are undecomposable.
"Conscious systems and social systems have to produce their own...basic elements, that is, thoughts and communications...which vanish as soon as they appear" (9).
Hence Bryant's monster X reference as disappearing when no longer being thought of. More to come.
I also like on pp. 9-10 that elements must be ephemeral, for a system cannot store and maintain them all. They must be disintegrated and reintegrated on a continual basis, very much akin to my de-re process. Also his discussion of time and renouncing "a stable and enduring presence" echo Bryant's use of Derrida.
I'm still wondering about elements within a suobject. They are obviously not fundamental particles as in metaphysics, since they are specific and particular to a unique and autonomous suobject. Yet lacking a withdrawn substance of their own they cannot be considered holons, since they are undecomposable into smaller parts. This would apply even if we consider holons epistemological categories, given the nature of whole-part all the way up/down. So how then do we square them with holonics?
Also, if a suobject has undecomposable elements does it also have unsubstantive, undecomposable generalities or matrices? Even though a suobject's elements are in need on continual renewal there remains the organizational endo-structural relations within which the elements participate. That remains as a sort of enduring matrix until the suobject is destroyed. And yet it seems this is defined as the suobject's substance on the top end? And which also, by the way, is not a part of a larger object, given Bryant's definition of strange mereology. Substantive suobjects are in the environment of larger or more inclusive suobjects, yet are not parts, so are also not holons?
From this article on Luhmann:
"In looking at psychic systems Luhmann developed a conception akin to Edmund Husserl.
Psychic systems consist of thoughts as their elementary basis. Thoughts are obviously connected
with one another, referring to earlier thoughts and preparing ongoing considerations (Luhmann
1995b, Ch. 1-4). Conceived in this way, Luhmann calls psychic systems systems of consciousness.
From this follows the implication that in his theory there is no systematic place for a concept of the unconscious, except in an understanding which postulates an observer who ascribes latencies to a
psychic system which are unobservable for the system itself. There are other formulations in which
Luhmann seems to perceive the identification of psychic systems with thought processes as too
restrictive. He looks at other elementary constituents such as feelings, acts of will, perceptions – and
then proposes ‘intentional acts’ as a name for the elements of consciousness" (13-14).
In this article Maturana and Varela find cognition to the the element(s) of biological systems (3). I also like this:
"In addition to temporalisation, Luhmann deontologises the concept of element. Elements are
defined as elements merely through their integration into the system. Outside or independently of the system they have no status as elements; i.e. they are 'not ontically pregiven' (Luhmann 1995a: 22). Elements can, of course, be composed of different components, which could be analysed independently of the system, but as elementary units they are only defined through their relation to other elements and in this sense through the function they fulfill for the system as a whole" (6).
"In Luhmann's theory the 'human being' is not conceptualised as forming a systemic unity. Instead it has to be understood as a conglomerate of organic and psychic systems. The former consists of biochemical elements, the latter of thoughts. Both systems are operatively closed against each other: no system can contribute elements to the respectively other system. The systems are however structurally coupled; i.e. their respective structures are adjusted to each other in such a way as to allow mutual irritations" (9-10).
So, our organic base is not transcended and included in our mental life but is rather an entirely separate system?! I.e. we are not holons?!
Hmmm, interesting. I'm writing a letter right now for the Integral Life discussion; I think I'll quote you there.
The answer to my conundrum is addressed in Chapter 5 of TDOO. In 5.2 he discusses the intensional and extensional relations of Badiou's set theory. In the former elements of the set are ordered in a particular way, whereas in the latter the elements can be related in multiple ways. I.e., elements in the latter are not defined by their relations whereas they are in the former. He relates this to his exo- and endo-relations respectively. So a particular suobject can be composed of smaller parts with their own substances, but their relations to the larger suobject are exo-relations. Whereas the organization of the endo-relations between those smaller parts is what is undecomposable in the larger suobject, what is particular to that suobject's substance. Hence the endo-relations themselves are not another suobject with substance but what make the larger suobject unique.
Hence per above indeed our biological parts are independent of our thoughts and they irritate each other via structural coupling. Thus the parts are not holons if by that we mean they are completely enveloped and subsumed within the higher order thoughts. But each biological part is a holon in that its endo-relations are indeed completely subsumed and organized within it. Hence Bryant's strange mereology. Given this twist we'd have to, as Balder suggests, create different categories of, and names for, holons with these distinctions if we are to continue to use the holon concept.
We've all heard of traditions that sees the human body as a microcosm to the macrocosm, an "as above so below" metaphor that posits a metaphysical everything (One) that our bodies fully represent on the material plane (a special One). See for example this section of The Secret Teachings of All Ages. This is often depicted with da Vinci's famous drawing, below:
Now the center of this universe is man, and the physical center of man is typically assumed to be the area just below the navel. In the above it could very well be the genitals. I say the center of man, both human and universal, is the asshole. And therefore the assholon, both universal and human, can be depicted as follows, using the 4-quadrant diagram as a frame with the assholon in the center. One can fill in the human anatomy upon this bare frame.
This is just so wrong.
In my Integral Life discussion, Joe Camosy asked the following question:
When does something go from a collection of qualities or attributes and become an autonomous object "emerging as something over and above [its] pieces, while also partly withholding [itself] from relations with other entities [and possess a hidden telos]]?" For example, when do utterances (say in the form of print and media advertisements for branded products) become autonomous objects, capable of acting, feeding, and interacting? Does OOO say anything about the process of formation and the creation of objects? ( Ideologies? Brands? Fads? Homunculi? ).
To which I replied, attempting to use some of what we've been discussing here:
To my knowledge, there is not an "official" position in OOO on the formation of objects; different writers take slightly different approaches. In a recent discussion on my forum, a member there (theurj) introduced an essay on Luhmann's work, since Luhmann's social autopoietic theory plays an important role in OOO thought (and frequently gets mentioned in Wilber's). This essay might provide some clues (since some OOO authors, following Luhmann, distinguish between objects or systems and elements, the latter of which are continually produced by objects/systems). Communication is elemental to a social system, for instance, as cognition is to an organism. Elements are not 'ontically pre-given' to a system but must be continually produced by that system (and they vanish as soon as the system stops producing them). In Levi Bryant's approach to OOO, which he calls onticology, elements differ from objects in that they do not withdraw; they are relational elements, rather, within and constitutive to an object or ontological system (which would withdraw in its contact with other objects or ontological systems).
With this in mind, and speculating here, it seems that the (Luhmannian-influenced) OOO position would be that utterances, by themselves, are elements rather than objects, but that they possibly could become objects (or homonculi) if they are given a concrete form which allows them to persist outside of the ongoing elemental (cognitive/communicative) activity of a system. By this, I am thinking of turning something into an icon, putting it in print, recording it, etc.
What's a little tricky here, as I understand this, is that, while communications are elemental to a social system, a social system itself can be understood as a withdrawing object in its own right. Two social systems encountering each other exhibit the characteristics of autopoietic closure, translation, withdrawal, etc, as would be the case of an individual attempting to relate to a social system.
So, two answers to your question might be: when the idea or communication is given concrete form, so that it can circulate "on its own," or when you are dealing with something with systemic qualities (in the language of my paper, a "generative (en)closure").