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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
Only have a few minutes at present so only read a couple of paragraphs of the last link. From the start I disagree that Derrida's differance is only "conceived in terms of absence" or that it is privileges difference over unity.
Regarding the stuff on metaphysical and ontological holism and Morton's criticism, I don't understand either of them enough to judge.
Yes, several of the recent articles I've posted indicate that as well...or that it can be made demonstrably present.
(I've just looked at the second article you shared, Thomas, by Zeilinger -- it looks good. Thanks.)
"O'Connell's experiments required delicate control and a temperature of just 25 millikelvin to measure the state in the few nanoseconds before it was broken down by disruptive influences from outside."
Ok, so taking as given that such experiments prove nonlocality and/or nonseperability, it seems such can only be created under the most exacting and limiting conditions for scant nanoseconds. So this does not occur in the natural state of the universe? Does it only occur when phenomena are so manipulated and observed? Or am I wrong about that?
One reason I bring up the observation is that in Bryant's OOO an object does not see its environment as it is but only through its translations, which is limited by its structure. So I'm just wondering to what degree our manipulations and translations of phenomena in a sense create the quantum effects we think we are merely perceiving in the world?
I agree with this -- which is why I've been saying that OOO needs to take better account of nonlocality, among other things, in its account of "objects." However, it may often be the case that physicists proceed with certain unquestioned philosophical presuppositions or biases themselves, and so, of course, philosophy can "speak back" to physics as well (at least to any narrative about reality that physicists might convey).
One concern of OOO, as I understand it, is to communicate a view which allows for, and preserves, the hiddenness, strangeness, otherness, elusiveness, autonomy, and shadow-dimension of things; and to avoid an account which either undermines or overmines this particularity (and the "withdrawn depth" of things) by reductively "explaining things away," usually reducing them all to the same ultimate, foundational "thing." In an account in which the observer is the observed, does this do away with such otherness, elusiveness, strangeness and/or unknown depth(s)?
Morton's paper that kicked off the thread references Zeilinger and the ontological interpretation of QM, referenced above. See the section on nonlocality beginning on p. 22. He takes Zeilinger as demonstrating empirical fact. On p. 23 he references the experiment on the "big" object displaying nonlocality. On that page he also notes the Copenhageners like Bohr, Bohm and Zeilinger express the ontological interpretation, and that such an interpretation is correlationist. But he says this interpretation is bad for a holism that "requires some kind of top-level object consisting of parts that are separate from the whole and hence replaceable." But that is exactly what this interpretation assumes, according to the SEP entry above. Again, confusing.
I don't know if Morton understands Bohr or not -- I'll trust Tom's opinion on that -- but to clear up one thing, I just want to note here that Morton is not calling Bohm and Zeilinger Copenhageners. He is saying that Bohr and Copenhagenism refuse to get ontological and insist there is nothing to look at because quantum phenomena are irreducibly inaccessible to us, and he contrasts this with the ontological interpretation of folks like Bohm and Zeilinger. However, this is still confusing, because he describes Bohm's ontological model as "bad for holism," whereas I would consider Bohm's model to be deeply holistic (some of his key terms being "holomovement" and "unbounded wholeness"). And more confusingly, Morton appears to be recommending Bohm's approach to the OOO crowd, most of whom posit -- like the Copenhagenists -- an "irreducible inaccessibility" at the heart of all things.
Thanks, Tom. Did you read the relevant passage in Morton's article (which is linked in the first post in this thread)? Morton may be wrong about Zeilinger, too -- it sounds like it -- but at least as I read him, he does appear to be contrasting Zeilinger (as a holder of the "ontological interpretation") with Copenhagenism.
I'll copy it below. Tell me what you think he's saying -- what contrasts he appears to be drawing:
Now consider nonlocality. In ecosystems, things are contiguous and
symbiotic. In nonlocality, things directly are other things. Alain Aspect,
Einstein's student David Bohm, Anton Zeilinger and others have shown that the
Eisntein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox concerning quantum theory is an empirical
fact.55 Einstein, Rosen and Podolsky argued that if quantum theory were
telling us something true about the Universe, then you would be able to
entangle particles.56 You could then send one particle some information (make
it spin a certain way), and the other would instantaneously appear to have
received the same information. This works to an arbitrary distance--two
yards, two miles, the other side of the galaxy. Zeilinger has demonstrated
nonlocal phenomena using entangled particles on either side of Vienna,
between two Canary Islands, and between orbiting satellites.57 To explain
nonlocality you could abolish the speed of light, but this troubles
physicists. Or you could say that there aren't really two particles, just one
auto-affective process. It sounds mad but other options are more so--it
involves time travel and telepathy. Nonlocality means something is profoundly
wrong with atomism.58 Moreover, objects have blurred boundaries at scales
considerably larger than we used to think. Photosynthesizing molecules in
chloroplasts, the symbiotic bacteria that make plants green, put photons into
coherence. When it enters the molecule a photon occupies many positions at
once.59 In some deep sense there's no (single, firm, separate) photon as such.
In early 2010 physicists established quantum coherence in an object visible
to the naked eye: a tiny fork vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously.60 If
biology discovers how entangled life forms are, quantum entanglement opens a
more profound interconnectedness.
How can ontology think nonlocality? The Copenhagen Interpretation of
quantum theory spearheaded by Bohr holds that though quantum theory is a
powerfully accurate heuristic tool, peering underneath it is absurd because
quantum phenomena are “irreducibly inaccessible to us” (Plotnitsky, Reading
Bohr 35). Bohr argued that our measurement is “indivisible” with what is
measured (35). The refusal to get ontological is already ontological:
Newtonian atomism, with its granular view of Matter, is left substantially
alone. Matters were less settled at Copenhagen than the victors' spin
portrayed.61 Bohm, Basil Hiley, Zeilinger, Antony Valentini and others proceed
along lines established by De Broglie: an “ontological interpretation” that
takes Bohr's “indivisibility” to pertain to objects beyond (human)
cognition.62 Bohm postulated an “implicate order” in which particles are
manifestations of some deeper process, like waves on the ocean (IO 246–77).
Just as ocean waves subside, particles fold back into the implicate order.
“Particles” are abstractions of a Leibnizian reality in which everything is
enfolded in everything else. The ontological interpretation is bad for holism
as well as atomism. Holism requires some kind of top-level object consisting
of parts that are separate from the whole and hence replaceable (21): another
modulation of mechanism, holist protestations notwithstanding. According to
the Bohmian view, you aren't part of a larger whole. Everything is enfolded
in everything as “flowing movement” (14). Unlike the Copenhagen
Interpretation, the ontological interpretation is noncorrelationist:
particles withdraw from one another, not because humans are observing them in
certain ways, but because the implicate order is withdrawn from itself. A
hyperobject if ever there was one: an auto-affective ocean turning its dark
pages. This whole might be strictly unanalyzable: the implicate order has an
irreducible dark side because it's made of “objects wrapped in objects
wrapped in objects” (GM 83). Here I'm not arguing that OOO must be Bohmian.
I'm arguing that a viable interpretation of quantum theory is itself objectoriented.
There is a kind of organicism here, a nonessentialist organicism
that mitigates against the fashion for mechanistic explanations in biology
(neo-Darwinism) and the humanities (some forms of posthumanism and
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. Electrons come and go,
change into other particles, radiate energy. An electron is real. Yet in the
act of becoming or un-becoming an electron, it's a statistical performance:
“quantum theory requires us to give up the idea that the electron, or any
other object has, by itself, any intrinsic properties at all. Instead, each
object should be regarded as something containing only incompletely defined
potentialities that are developed when an object interacts with an
appropriate system” (QT 139). This approaches Harman's image of the
withdrawn-ness of objects as a “subterranean creature” (TB 129–33 (133)).
Thus the “something deeper” from which the electron unfolds is also
withdrawn. If they lack such a hidden essence, objects must be spatially
external to one another like machine parts. This legitimates
instrumentalization, which reduces objects to other objects. If objects
literally relate externally (if the hidden “interior” is spatiotemporal),
then little distinguishes OOO from mechanism. If objects are strangely
strange all the way down, OOO can't be a form of mechanism. We can't predict
the future state of reality even in principle, because we can't anticipate
the position of every particle. Not only because this would take too long (it
would) or break the speed of light; not only because of complementarity (QT
158–61), but for a more fundamental reason, very much not to do with
epistemology or correlationism: there are no particles as such, no Matter as
such, only discretely quantized objects. If this is the case at the most fine
grained level we currently know, how much more so at higher scales, the
scales on which evolution, biology and ecology happen. Ecological thought
must be realism, but it doesn't have to be materialism or mechanism.
Concerning the Zeilinger article you linked, I recall reading that several years ago, when we were discussing similar matters on Gaia. That article made an impression on me. I don't recall many of the details, but I believe I recall the scientist (Zeilinger) wanting to find a way to (experimentally, empirically) dismiss or put to rest quantum theory's challenge to conventional realism, and being unable to do so.
As I understand it, the critique of correlationism is that it locks us in a world that is, and can only be, a human product, a human extension, a human reflection. I believe Meillassoux first raised this critique, but he differs from some of the OOO folks in that he doesn't think we can ever get "outside" of correlationism. He just says that our necessary involvement in the cosmos should not stop us from at least trying to imagine a humanless world, or attempting (as is the scientific project) to describe reality without special reference to human beings (i.e., as reality is in itself, whether or not humans are around; or as non-human objects might encounter and experience each other).
P.S. It looks like we posted at the same time. Yes, I'm not trying to say Zeilinger is not a Copenhagenist, only that that is how Morton has him pegged. (I was asking your opinion to see if you read Morton the same way I was.)
Is 'reality' then relative to particular observer-observed correlations (and thus multiple)? Or is Bohr saying that a fundamental and universal feature of reality itself is this co-relation between observers and observeds? Or both, or neither?
Concerning the latter view, it seems OOO accepts something like that, but it holds that there is always an observer-specific information bias: the observer, as a system exhibiting autopoietic closure, renders the information according to its own internal codes. In other words, it is this autopoietic closure which renders particular observer-observed correlations particular or unique. OOO also holds that the reality of the observed is never exhausted by any particular correlational event (which is also a kind of translation); that there is always something in excess, something withdrawn from such encounters. It says such a view is necessary to make sense of the project of science. If the reality of any given entity was exhausted in a particular observer-observed co-relation, then science would have nothing to do; there would be nothing further to discover, reality would be incapable of surprising us, etc.
What do you think of this?
Oh, actually, no, I think I probably introduced a limitation there myself; because a big part of OOO is insisting on the possibility of describing reality in general and universal terms. It follows Bhaskar in this. It argues that we are able, through transcendental deduction, to ascertain and speak about the nature of reality, quite apart from human observers. It argues for metaphysics, in other words.