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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
“Morton adopts a Heideggerian notion of world as sphere to which humans have privileged (if not exclusive) access. ‘World’, from this perspective, is a reified object which floats in a metaphysical ‘void’, immune to the extrusions of other objects and to change. This is, from my viewpoint, an extremely limiting notion of ‘world’.
“I prefer the non-metaphysical (and post-Heideggerian) conception of world developed by Jean-Luc Nancy (see my previous post on this topic). […] He is concerned with understanding how a new world can emerge without metaphysical grounding. Like Morton, Nancy suggests that the ‘event’ (like the object) ultimately ‘withholds’ itself or ‘withdraws’, leaving a strange ‘absence of presence’. It is from this ‘nothing’ that ‘world’ cultivates itself, as a form of creation-as-being. ‘World’ from this perspective, is being-with, or the direct relation of beings to one another. It has no outside, no metaphysics and no teleology. It is also the condition of ‘being-toward’ – that is, the co-constitution of plural beings – rather than a metaphysical plane in which beings are separated.”
Somehow the publication of this book slipped my attention (or I heard about it and quickly forgot!):
Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, by Graham Harman
"I find it amazing that concepts of work and energy are almost entirely absent in the humanities (and generally in the social sciences as well). It’s as if we believed that being is composed solely of the discursive and things, and are then left– when raising social and political questions –left to ask whether it is the discursive that holds social relations together or things. We forget that holding anything together requires work. When I propose the concept of 'thermopolitics' (I don’t know whether anyone else has used this term), I’m suggesting that we need to attend to work and energy as additional mechanisms of power that lead people to tolerate oppressive assemblages (Reich’s, Deleuze & Guattari’s question). It’s not simply because people are duped or stupid that they tolerate oppressive assemblages that act against their own interests, but also because they are dependent on certain assemblages for the calories they need to sustain their bodies, as well as the fuels they need to maintain their homes, transportation, and so on. A similar point can be made about time. When I propose the term 'chronopolitics' (and again, I’m not familiar with how others use the term), I’m referring to the manner in which the sheer structuration of time for people, groups, and institutions can become so overwhelming that they’re left with no additional time to try and change their circumstances. Chronopolitics would be the analysis of technologies of time as mechanisms of power that 1) exhaust people physically and mentally, and 2) so fill the day that other forms of engagement are foreclosed."
* This is why Bryant needs to read Rifkin. Rifkin has heretofore not appeared in Bryant's blog. I emailed Bryant some Rifkin material and he responded he'll take a look.
Weird realism indeed. I must find out more, given Cthulhu is IPS's patron daemon.
After a couple month hiatus Bryant is blogging again. He has a few new posts on plurarlism but this one caught my attention. He is concerned that pluralism has lapsed into cultural relativism, where there is no way to ascertain 'truth' because all views are ok. He even accuses Latour of this. And as realists we need to say what is right and wrong. There is a Real beyond any particular point of view (aka perspectivism). (I'm reminded of Harris in this recent video and commentary.)
I still think that some form of developmental psychology would help him to distinguish better views. We could still have a plurality of different views at a similar level, or different peaks in Harris's terms, all of which would be more based on the Real than less evolved views. And still just be contingent, not final. In Bryant's own terms, it's not just balancing the different domains of the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary, but levels within each of those domains. He does talk about the mereology of assemblages in other contexts so it would help if he applied that to psychological levels.
Although his point is accurate, in that some make claims from one domain about another domain that just isn't true. In kennilingus, they make a category error based on (con)fusing the value spheres in Habermasian terms. While there are areas of overlaps between the domains, and they can inform each other, they nonetheless have their own set of validity claims.
Interesting -- thanks for the heads up. This is relevant for me, with my recent (renewed) reflections on pluralism and realism. I'll read the blogs this evening....
I commented on his thermopolitics blog post here. My comment follows.
You really need to read Jeremy Rifkin, particularly his book The Third Industrial Revolution. He addresses exacly what you’re talking about. For example, he discusses the worldview matrix that was enacted through the energy regimes of particular eras. Fossil fuels are found is select areas and require large financial and military investments to secure them. Along with this comes a way or organizing business top-down with centralized command and control. For example, the railroad required large financial investments that included foreign investors, and such immense capital required a stock market to track it. Ownership became separated from management, and workers from management. All of which was a drastic change from the more agrarian economy envisioned by Adam Smith. Max Weber studied this shift and noted that the new business model emphasized pyramidal organization structure (top-down), pre-established rules for all operations and jobs, a strict division of labor and wages. This railroad model transformed all businesses (107-09).
He also explored the context in which Adam Smith proposed an economy. Smith looked to Newton for guiding principles and the latter’s three laws became the template. The market, once set in motion, operated on the same principles of motion. Though instead of God being Newton’s prime mover it was for Smith enlightened self-interest , with supply and demand making the necessary adjustments. However the laws of economic motion gives us limited data and doesn’t take into account time and irreversibility. Both Newtonian math and Smith’s economics are completely reversible and both lack the insights of thermodynamic laws. We’ve seen this same scenario play out with quantum mechanics itself, with the earlier versions also not taking into account thermodynamics and irreversibility (193-95).
All of which is due to the modernist paradigm and the assumptions inherent to it. Whereas the emerging P2P and postmodern paradigm surpasses all of the above by using alternative energy sources and the networked modeling of the internet. It’s an entirely different way of doing business that distributes energy, knowledge, power, everything in a truly democratic model.
Also see this interview with Rifkin, wherein he said:
"The problem is Newton’s physics don’t tell you a damn thing about economic activity…. The problem is economics is all about how energy flows, and it’s governed by the laws of thermodynamics, which weren’t discovered until the latter part of the nineteenth century by engineers and chemists studying energy flows.
“By that time, economics was already ossified – didn’t want to hear about it. But economic activity is all about the irreversible passage of low entropy energy inputs whether it’s embedded in the material form in the earth – like fossil fuels, or rare Earths, or in energy by itself. And it’s how that energy in both material and energy form is converted to utilities for society and then they end up back in nature in a degraded state to be recycled or replenished.
“So, the laws of thermodynamics really govern economic activity, but almost no economist ever studies the law of thermodynamics. They don’t have a clue. The engineers, the chemists, the biologists, the architects, the urban planners, the physicists – all of those professions, which actually create economic activity, they do so from a thermodynamic lens. So there’s a complete disconnect between them and the economists.”
It looks like Bryant is circling, in these discussions, around something like Bhaskar's holy trinity: ontological realism, epistemological relativism, and judgmental rationality. Ontological realism is the claim that there is a universal, intransitive dimension of reality; epistemological relativism is understood to encompass, not only knowledge or interpretations, but empirical experiences as well; and judgmental rationality is the ability, through rational inquiry, experimentation, etc, to arrive at non-arbitrary understandings of reality, to judge between better and worse interpretations, to critique lack of reflexivity or test for theory-practice inconsistencies, etc.
I left a comment to this Bryant post referencing his new book. Based on what he said in this post I asked if the new book would be open access or not. And if not, why? The comment was deleted but it's a relevant question, since if the new book is strictly university press it would be counter to most of what he said about the limits of that sort of gravitational path in dispensing knowledge. Anyone else think it deserves to be answered?
Update: My comment was later published and Bryant responded. See the post link above.
As you may know, I keep an archive of my blog at wordpress, which also archived the old Open Integral blog. Bryant responded to one of my recent posts on one of his blog posts. He doesn't seem to understand what I'm saying. Read the blog post and our exchange and let me know if I've been unclear.