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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
As to your questions in the last paragraph, Bryant seems to distinguish an object from its parts, in that the parts of an object, organized as its endo-relations, are not objects in themselves. He calls them "elements." I'm not exactly clear on this though, since at other times he notes that 'larger' objects can indeed be composed on 'smaller' objects, so I'm not clear at what point smaller objects become merely elements instead of objects. My guess is that the iron or wood of the hammer would be its elements so this would be distinguished from other objects like the wielder or the tool box. Not sure though.
As he says in chapter 4.1:
"In arguing that the elements that compose autopoietic systems are not ontically pre-given, it is argued that these elements are not themselves substances, but rather only exist for the endo-consistency of the substance or multiplicity that constitutes them."
I'll have to re-read some of this to get a better handle on it. A bit further on he says:
"Here we must carefully distinguish between substances and elements. Elements are always elements for a substance. They only exist as elements within the endo-structure or endo-composition of a system and do not, as we have seen, have any independent ontological existence of their own. Substances, by contrast, always enjoy an autonomous ontological existence in their own right, and therefore only exist in relations that are external to them. That is, substances are capable of breaking with their relations and entering into new relations, or of existing completely without relations at all."
I think he's following Harman in his discussion of elements, since I was just reading Harman's discussion of elements in Guerrilla Metaphysics and elsewhere. I wasn't paying that much attention to that section of the book, though, so I'll have to go back to it! About substances existing without any relations at all, I simply don't buy it. Both Bryant and Harman make such comments, but I just don't know what they could possibly mean. Perhaps the existence of such objects is a logical implication of certain of their metaphysical commitments, but since I don't see any such objects in evidence anywhere, I'm inclined at this point to think that something is wrong with their metaphysics. Or else they mean something by that that I just don't get yet.
I don't think I get it either, except in the following way. Let's use your example of a hammer. Obviously a hammer is composed of atoms, iron, wood etc. So in that sense it is in endo-relations with those 'elements.' But a hammer, once constructed as object, may lie dormant in a toolbox, never interacting with a nail. So in that sense it might remain withdrawn, never 'actualizing' its function by interacting with other objects in exo-relations. Granted this requires the fancy footwork of defining the differences between objects/substances and elements, as well as endo- and exo-relations. But if we grant the definitions then it does seem consistent. As to whether it is entirely coherent is up for debate.
That makes sense, if they mean by 'non-related' something very limited and specific. But does it really make sense to say that the hammer is not related to anything at all? The hammer is in contact with the bottom of the tool box, and that contact presumably constitutes a different relationship than if it were sitting in salt water, or on the surface of a quasar. It is in contact with the air in the box, and may eventually rust and decay through that contact. Also, why does it stay in one place, instead of just floating away? Because it is in relationship with the earth and is bound in place by earth's gravity. And in terms of its constitution, the hammer is 'related' to a dead star, where the iron was created; and to some felled tree, which is where its handle came from. Hell, the hammer is probably related in some way to Kevin Bacon. If, when we say that the hammer is 'withdrawn from all relations,' we mean only that it isn't being used as a hammer and is lying around forgotten in a toolbox, then that would appear to reduce the hammer's being to its being-for-us, which I thought was the orientation they were wanting to critique.
Good questions to which I have no answers. We need Bryant, Harman, Morton or one of their informed students to respond.
Yes, I wish one of them would show up here and straighten us out!
In my early morning musings on OOO this past weekend, one question that occurred to me was whether, if two diamonds stuck together, or a group of men standing together in a circle, could be considered a unique substance, whether any configuration or juxtaposition of objects at all could be considered a substance. I just read in Tool-Being this morning where Harman actually addresses this, and appears to agree that this is the case. He gives an absurd list of objects and describes some scenario(s) under which these objects could together be regarded as a unique substance. The thought I had had was that, if this was the case, then it appears the world is infinitely divisible into substances, which -- following Joel's formula -- amounts to indivisibility. And a secondary thought was that such substances appear to be dependent on perspective, or enaction, because a configuration or juxtaposition is a relation, and a relation is a relation-for. Harman appears to concede this as well.
This suggests to me a both/and sort of understanding is required: coming down exclusively on either the object or relation pole does not appear to be tenable.
Just noting en passant: I am reading The Quadruple Object, where Harman is just beginning to discuss das Geviert, the Fourfold, and in the early part of that discussion, he describes the two poles as concealed <-> unconcealed, one <-> many. I'm not sure where he'll go with this yet, or whether he will change this along the way, but for now a definite similarity to the Integral quadrants is evident (esp. if we read interior as concealed and exterior as unconcealed).
Ah, yes! I'd noticed the Lovecraft references in that article and immediately thought of our older thread(s). I will take a look at it again.
If inspiration is required, perhaps some Calls for Cthulhu would help?
One aspect of Cthulhu that comes immediately to mind is that s/he/it is radically other, cannot be comprehended, let alone barely imagined is the most vague of ways. I.e., it is radically withdrawn and can never enter into presence or actualization, always remaining a nightmare that haunts our waking days, insidiously reminding us in our moments of weakness that all we know and aspire to is but a dream that can come crashing down at any moment without notice like a tornado in the night. Even though we cannot directly perceive it we nonetheless have an inkling of it though our darkest dreams and through our speculative philosophies, themselves nightmares for ontotheologies. Cthulhu is a hyperobject of the most majestic magnitude that although we cannot grasp we still see its effects in our fears, like the slowly increasing temperature of the earth from another hyperobject, climate change. Cthulhu warns us to keep our theories of everything in check, to allow for the unknown and unknowable, to temper what otherwise can easily slide into totalitarianism and hegemony. If we do not heed its call we will project his shadow and create our own destruction. All hail Cthulhu, the horrific and ironic savior of mankind!
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn - (In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.)