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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
In this post Bryant finds a rough equivalency between Harman's sensual objects and his local manifestations, with caveat that the former are in another object whereas for him not so. So if a thought is a non-substantial sensual object in the mind of a substantial object, this is not at all like a local manifestation (LM) for Bryant, since LMs are not elements of endo-relations or the endo-relations themselves.
Then in Chapter 4.1 of TDOO Bryant says:
"In this chapter, I will discuss the manner in which one entity, to use Whithead's vocabulary, 'prehends' another entity, producing what Graham Harman has called 'sensuous objects' on the interior of a real entity. Here 'prehension' refers to the manner in which one entity grasps or relates to another entity."
Where we come full circle, as this was the referenced chapter that brought up the issue in the first place.
In 4.2 Bryant goes on:
"Harman distinguishes between real objects and real qualities, and sensuous objects and sensuous qualities. Here we must proceed with caution, for Harman's sensuous objects 1) do not refer solely to objects that are merely fictional, and 2) are not restricted to humans and animals alone. Rather, all objects, whether animate or inanimate, relate to other objects not as real objects, but as sensuous objects. Evoking a sort of quasi-Lacanianism, we can say that 'a sensuous object is an object for another object.' Sensuous objects are not the real object itself, but are, rather, what objects are for other objects. In this respect, sensuous objects are very similar to Luhmann's information events and system-states."
This is directly followed by the Monster X example.
Yes, that is my understanding of Harman's use of sensual objects -- that the sensual object is the object as it manifests for, is translated by, any other real object. This means that a sensual object cannot be "reduced" to thought, if by thought we mean rumination on a subject or a purely imaginal reflection (such as thinking about a fictional stick figure), since it basically is meant to encompass anything at all that is phenomenally experienced (including all "objects in the world" that one might perceive). But in the blog I quoted, he nevertheless is clear that he thinks imaginary figures are purely sensual objects. He has also said, elsewhere, that he regards elements as special kinds or "subsets" of sensual objects.
From this Harman dictionary:
ELEMENTS or ETHER
Elements “are the glue of the world, the vicarious cause that holds reality together, the trade secret of the carpentry of things” (GM, p.166). “Perceptions bathes amidst elements”. ”elements are the basis of all relations, not just sentient ones” (GM, p.169). “elements are the notes of sensual objects” (GM, p.171). “nothing exists but the interiors of objects, since objects are nothing but their interiors.. in these interiors, only one sort of reality can be found: elements… an element is a sensual object incarnated in highly specific form” (GM, p.193). Elements are more than notes as they include features that are purely variable or accidental. “An element is always one specific, ruthless, sincere incarceration of a sensual object” (GM, p.195). Sensual objects inevitably become elements, and there is something inherently flat and caricatured about elements, however brilliantly they may sparkle. Elements do not read towards the depths, towards other levels of the world, but simply as facilitating links within the current level of experience”. (GM, p.217). “An element is an overdetermined sensual object” (GM, p.222). For Levinas, the element is the “medium in which enjoyment occurs”, an ether that envelopes us, in which we sincerely bathe (GM, p.37).
Harman added this blog entry on the 14th of January. The description is from a set of Tool-being playing cards he made back in 1992: “When we look at things, we break them down and analyze them. But the analysis always stops somewhere. Dissolved in thought, objects survive as unique crystals, haunting residues that must be experienced in their own way rather than explained.
The elements is what cannot be broken down: The power of any world lies in its elements. Whether they’re letters of the alphabet or the ingredients in a tea recipe, elements are things to conjure with. Every domain of our lives, from the nursery to the factory to the laboratory, has its recurring forms and stock characters. Once we have mastered these familiar shapes, we feel ourselves to be citizens of that kingdom.
When things are reduced to elements they all belong together. No element, no matter how lowly, can take the place of any other. The emperor’s crown is no more and no less an element than is a dinosaur or an aluminum can.
Nothing can escape its own elemental nature, its own distinctive configuration. Even the mightiest power has a face.”
Here's a link to Harman's article on vicarious causation. There is no indication in what publication this was published.
Another question I have is how does OOO address the extended mind theory,* an extension of embodied cognition? In EMT a thought can act like a meme in the environment and be transferred to and through individual minds, i.e., the thought didn't originate within an individual's endo-structural relations. Granted Bryant allows that exo-relations can and do affect and/or change endo-relations. Perhaps the meme crosses the individual boundary and is translated according to the individual, with its private thoughts about the meme being sensuous objects? But this still leave the originating meme-thought as an external real object, does it not?
* Also see Clark and Chalmer's paper on the topic.
Update: Bryant does have some posts on this. Here's one, which also references a previous post. No mention of how it relates to endo-relations though.
The following is interesting and gets at my point, from the earlier of Bryant's posts linked in the cited post above:
"Cultural institutions and technologies begin to think for us. In Being-There Clark gives the example of an office where there are all sorts of subroutines for particular actions ('place the pink form in the bin labeled x'). The institutional structure does not require any centralized planner nor agents that have an overall representation of how the office works, but rather all the subroutines, including their material elements, collaborate in a distributed fashion together to produce a set of regular results. The institution as a whole has cognition in and through its mesh. This mesh wouldn’t be able to function without brains, but those brains are only a component in these cognitive processes. This is what allows us to claim that cultures and societies think."
Now Bryant does say that in the above example this is because the individual human suobject is a suobstantive part of a larger assemblage, in this case a social institution capable of distributed thinking. But the thinking is not an element that belongs to the strictly endo-relational structure of the human that translates it. Yes, the translation is peculiar to that human's endo-relations, but the thinking and the thought that perturbs it is its own real suobstance, yes?
Would this "distributed thinking" be akin to (or have the same elemental status as) Luhmann's social systemic communication? Meaning, it wouldn't be an element in any individual's endo-relations, but it would be an element in the company's endo-relations. (Not that I necessarily agree with this, but I am wondering if that is where Bryant would go with this...)
Back on p. 72 Luhmann said thoughts (or cognition) are the elements of conscious (or biological) beings whereas communications are the elements of social structures. I'm not sure how closely Bryant is following this, or to what degree he refines this in terms of extended mind. In the two posts at Larval Subjects above this is not addressed. But it seems certain Bryant is accepting that the thinking done by the social structure in the EM posts is not communications but extended cognition, a supposed element of conscious suobjects, not social suobjects. Even the whole division as to what is conscious breaks down with EM.
Yes, I understand that Luhmann distinguishes between cognition and communication, but since I believe Luhmann regards cognition and communication as elmental to their respective systems, and since Bryant has appeared to regard cognition as elemental to a biological system, my thought was -- if he is following Luhmann generally, and also more specifically his own interpretation of the status of cognition for the organism -- then he would likely regard extended cognition as "elemental" (non-substantial) for an organizational or social system as well.
But I'm with you in wondering about this, since as I also argued earlier on, thought does seem to have object-like qualities as well.
Something else Bryant said in the quote above, about the social structure not requiring "any centralized planner nor agents that have an overall representation." I'm reminded about Wilber's differentiation between individual and social holons, the former having a dominant monad while the latter does not. The thing is, with EM the organic individual suobject doesn't have this either, its own cognition being distributed. Yes, it has its own endo-structure distinguished from its exo-relations, as does the social suobject. Bryant agrees with that much. And the individual organic suobject translates perturbations (ideas) from outside in a unique fashion, as does the social suobject.
And even the mediating suobject that communicates between the two (sign) has its own suobstance, presumably its own endo and exo-relations? So an idea in the endo-relation of the sign? Or just its element? The idea being an element for all of them? That can't be, for elements are not shared or communicated, residing strictly in endo-relations. Only a real suobject can be communicated, right?