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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
A few excerpts from the linked review that support what I've been saying lately in this and other threads:
"Peter Sloterdijk warns 'none of what will be said here can, whether theologically, politically or religion-psychologically, be thought of as harmless. [...] The civilizing process of the monotheisms will be complete once people are ashamed of certain statements made by their respective god.'”
"Sloterdijk argues that the belief in a 'personal' monotheistic God leads inexorably to belief in a monarch-like being who directs the lives of the believers with disastrous results. He does not view the 'ontological' conception of 'the highest,' which he likens to the impersonal 'god of the philosophers,' with the same level of skepticism.”
"Chapter Six (The Pharmaka) presents Sloterdijk’s attempt to solve what he views as the intransigent exclusive 'either-or' elements of Aristotelian logic at the base of monotheistic thought. His solution to the 'either-or' is 'polyvalent' thinking about transcendence that accepts 'both-and' propositions, a middle ground which he describes as a 'halfway world of graded shades of grey. [...] He envisions polyvalence leading to what he terms 'mature religious cultures.'"
Also see this post for more on Caputo as well as Keller and Faber.
In honor of Bryant's dark objects, I present this article on a new theory of dark matter. Such matter apparently makes up most of the universe, and like a dark object it is "massive, non-interacting particles" that "neither absorbs nor emits light, and thus cannot be detected."
A few posts up (here) Bryant said: "In this regard, 'an-archy' doesn’t mean 'without law', but 'without ultimate or transcendent authority deciding the law."
Caputo on hier(an)archy:
"To be sure, by advocating différance Derrida does not advocate outright chaos. He does not favor a simple-minded street-corner anarchy (nothing is ever simple) that would let lawlessness sweep over the land, although that is just what his most simplistic and anxious critics take him to say. For that would amount to nothing more than a simple counter-kingdom, a reign of lawlessness….Just like a simple totalitarianism…the opposite way, a simple anarchy would break the tension between the arche and the an-arche, erasing the slash between power and powerlessness….in 'Force of Law' Derrida made it plain that deconstruction is not a matter of leveling laws in order to produce a lawless society, but of deconstructing laws in order to produce a just society. To deconstruct the law means to 'negotiate the difference' between law and justice, where the law is thought to be something finite, and ‘justice' calls up an uncontainable event, an infinite or unconditional or undeconstructable demand" (27).
Also see paragraph 32 of this interview, where he calls it hier-an-archy.
From the Introduction:
"This involves the construction of a new model of the division of things. [...] Whoever expects philosophy to teach them something about knowledge, consciousness, or individual and collective subjectivity more broadly, must be forewarned: they may be disappointed. Here we will return as little as possible to this way of thinking" (2).
More from the intro:
"The challenge of this book is to be neither determined by a positive content nor structured by an analytic or dialectical method. [...] Every analytic reduces the possibility of being something to some logical, rational, or pragmatic conditions. Every dialectic reduces the possibility of being something to its mediation by another thing. Instead, we demonstrate our commitment to that solitary something in each thing that can never be reduced to anything else. This irreducibility is the 'chance' of each thing, and the ground for dismissing both analytic and dialectical ways of thinking. We reject ways of thinking that reduce things exclusively to natural, social, or historical things" (7-8).
Nice. And where have we heard many of these points before? In this thread. I have a few comments for the moment.
He claims that perceiving nonduality requires not rationality but intuition. This of course sets up exactly the kind of false dichotomy he just denounced. It's true that 'false' reason cannot so perceive it, but 'real' reason can, the latter being exactly the sort of nondual imaginative rationality L & J describe. A rationality (or vision logic) that exemplifies the sort of openness to the real he describes. He acknowledges that language (and therefore rational thought) can get at this via poetry and koan (paradox).
Like several of our posts, he discusses the virtual much like differance. Object a though he is using the strict Lacanian interpretation based on desire and sees it more as an obstruction, whereas I applied de/re to the term (using Zizek and Bryant, both Lacan experts) to be more akin to the virtual. He also makes the typical mistake of limiting Derrida to language whereas he was very much into ontology per se, but does give him create for finding the virtual in language.
I appreciate his description of the virtual as "folded against itself" by intertwining with actual things, which reminds me of this thread. Although his descriptive language again borders on the kind of duality he criticizes in purely abstract (false) reason. E.g., "beyond space-time" when per Bryant the virtual is "the time of the object," not some completely homogenous soup. And the language seems to indicate the virtual is some sort of causal realm that can exist without the actual, that while it needs the latter to create novelty it must "fall" into it. Also this notion of "identification" with the virtual, whereas the most salient point about the virtual according to OOO is that it is not part of identity, a characteristic of the actual.
In that regard I appreciate the section on not focusing on the real as such but on the desires of the object a. By so doing through meditation we can detach from them while acknowledging we need them to relate to the world, just not via obsession. One manifestation of this is social action, to "liberate the means of production," one of my favs these days. And a point I made earlier in the thread, this is not a liberation of desire per se but to "desiring better."
This leads to a "democracy of matter" reminiscent of Bryant's "democracy of objects." I appreciate the dynamic systems language here on the requisite enclosure of things needed in order to allow for complexification and emergent levels. Which of course requires a balance with a system's openness to its environment. Which reminds me of the balance of image and logic indicative of real reason noted earlier.
I also appreciate the caution about reifying this desire for emergence and evolution, for it turns into a craving of the kind we see in much of the evolutionary spirituality crowd. It's a fixation on being the best and the brightest, with a disconnect from the lowest and the most needy. It's much like mixing with the capitalist notion of "we get what we deserve" as evidenced by what we already have.
The language again though gets metaphysical when he describes it as a generic evolutionary “pull,” much like the Lingam's morphogenetic gradient. It a way it sounds like the strange attractor of dynamic systems, but as Bryant and DeLanda make clear there isn't one metaphysical attraction toward which we are all evolving. Strange attractors are particular the particular objects, and are themselves immanently constructed based on the autonomy of objects. Emergence and evolution yes. Some predetermined pull, not so much.
A thread at IPS FB on Zizek started by Cameron led me to browse Zizek's book, Less Than Nothing. In reading the section on the negation of negation I came upon this passage that reminded me of Morton's ecology without nature:
"Here, the 'negation of the negation' is the shift from the idea that we are violating some natural balanced order to the idea that imposing on the Real such a notion of balanced order is itself the greatest violation--which is why the premise, the first axiom even, of every radical ecology is 'there is no Nature.'" (298).
The intro to Onto-Cartography is here.
This reviewer cares not for Harman or Bryant.
I read Harman's response to Garcia in Parrhesia, linked above. A few observations for now. Harman makes clear that an object as a the thing-in-itself (TII) cannot be reduced to anything else, but perspectives about that object are indeed reduced to (i.e., depend on) that object (5).* This makes sense when he speaks of real objects. While they are not directly accessible they are inferred through transcendental deduction. The nature of their ultimate inaccessibility (withdrawal), at least in toto, is justification that they cannot be reduced to perspectives about them.
But Harman's argument gets more than a bit tricky here, since he includes in this statement sensual objects. It seems that sensual objects are how a real object perceives another object, i.e., its perspective. To justify a sensual TII as distinct from an outside perspective of it he distinguishes it from its sensual qualities, those every shifting actualities that change in response to different circumstances. Despite the changes there is an autonomous, unchanging sensual object because “this is how experience works,” so “experience itself is the final court of appeal” (6). I'm not following this so those more experienced with Harman might help me out here.
* This reduces perspectivism to the real, thus challenging Wilber's notion that perspectives are primary. There cannot be perspectives of objects without TIIs. I question though that the TII can exist with just other TIIs without how they perceive each other, without their perspectives of each other. It seems real and sensual objects require real and sensual qualities for anything to exist. By giving primacy to the real, and limiting it to the withdrawn, it's sort of like Wilber setting up a Causal realm from which a relative realm depends but not vice-versa. Again, those more familiar with Harman might clarify.