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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
I understand that Latour is working on a new philosophical position -- related to subsistence -- which has not yet been published.
More DeLanda from TST:
“In other conceptions of irreducible wholes it is assumed that the properties of the parts are determined by their role in the whole, so that detaching them from it would change their very identity. But for parts to play a role in a mechanism they must have their own properties, removing them from the whole preventing them only from exercising their capacities, and must remain separate to be able to interact. This can be summarized by saying that irreducibility must go hand in hand with decomposability. A different way of expressing this limitation is to require that the relations between the parts not be relations of interiority in which the very identity of the terms is determined by their relations.
“Instead, as the realist philosopher Gilles Deleuze has emphasized, we need to conceive of the parts of a mechanism in terms of relations of exteriority, so that ‘a relation may change without the terms changing’. The terms ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’ should not be confused with spatial terms like ‘internal’ and ‘external’: organs like the kidney, the heart, or the liver, may be internal to the body but they interact with each other through their own external surfaces or membranes, by excreting biochemical substances or sensing them through embedded receptors. And their intimate relations are not explained by their necessary mutual constitution, but by their contingent coevolution” (385-6).
The paper is on Facebook and since I refuse to support that medium I cannot access it. Can you make it available otherwise?
I found the same text that Bonnie posted on this blog, so maybe Bonnie was just reposting Ivakhiv's paper proposal rather than her own.
Of note in looking at the conference description was the comparison of the non-human with the post-human, e.g. of the latter referencing Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. (Recall my references to her in comparing dynamic systems and deconstruction here.) Relating to Hayle's posthumanism* see Ivakhiv's initial review of Avatar here, and a synopsis of reviews here.**
* From wikipedia:
"Despite drawing out the differences between 'human' and 'posthuman,' Hayles is careful to note that both perspectives engage in the erasure of embodiment from subjectivity. In the liberal humanist view, cognition takes precedence over the body, which is narrated as an object to possess and master. While popular conceptions of the cybernetic posthuman imagine the body as merely a container for information and code."
** For example from the first link:
"Behind it all is...the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot."
We see reverberations of this in Dial's recent comment, in that the body (like the Na'vi) is being posthumanized via a non-humanism of object relations, and hence the likes of Ivakhiv's process-oriented, embodied environmentalism as response to OOO. Also see our previous discussion of Avatar here.
For you Nagarjuna fans, you might like Ivakhiv's post "Nagarjuna, ecophilosophy & the practice of liberation." Part 2 here.
"First I should say that, with reference to the relational/objectological debate debate, the core Buddhist concept of 'dependent origination' is as clear a statement of the process-relational position as any.... This goes against Graham Harman’s (and others’) argument that there is something more to any object than its properties, relations, and conditions. For Buddhism, there is nothing (no-thing) left over. But that is not to say that there is, in fact, nothing…"
Some parallels with OOO from Morin's "Restricted complexity, general complexity":
"Concerning this, the old formula is known that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, because the addition of qualities or properties of the parts is not enough to know those of the whole: new qualities or properties appear, due to the organization of these parts in a whole, they are emergent.
But there is also a substractivity which I want to highlight, noticing that the whole is not only more than the sum of its parts, but it is also less than the sum of it parts.
Because a certain number of qualities and properties present in the parts can be inhibited by the organization of the whole. Thus, even when each of our cells contains the totality of our genetic inheritance, only a small part of it is active, the rest being inhibited....it is through organization of the parts in a whole that emergent qualities appear and inhibited qualities disappear" (7-8).
This is interesting -- and would seem to tie "withdrawal" (inhibition of qualities) necessarily to complexity (i.e. relationship).
I've been coming across references to the philosopher, Michel Serres, in numerous recent readings, so I decided to seek out something written by him. Of possible relevance to this thread, here's a lecture transcript in which he discusses his notion of world-object.
I am doing a rewrite of my recent paper, and I am working on a section where an editorial reviewer was expressing some reservations about my translation of Morrison's "infinite divisibility" to "infinite reducibility." The reviewer said s/he thought it was a powerful concept and potentially useful insight, but wasn't quite convinced and wanted further clarification. Here is that section of my paper, with a number of revisions which I hope better supports my argument. I share it here because I'm using Harman's work to do so.
...I see the recognition of irreducible particularity of actual occasions – of enacted realities – as an important way of safeguarding the integrity and even autonomy of emergent realities, which is another way of saying: it guards against a lurking human will-to-power that might inform an enactive paradigm which is entertained without such recognition. In my own thought, I would like to preserve this integrity without appealing, as the Object Oriented Ontologists do, to wholly withdrawn substances or things-in-themselves. To this end, I have found another concept by Joel Morrison (2007) to be useful: his Principle of Nondual Rationalism, which holds that “infinite divisibility equals indivisibility.” As Morrison (2007) puts it: “Infinite divisibility necessitates that there can be no fundamental or absolute division because there will always be a deeper level of divisibility, and hence, with infinite divisibility the absolute is fundamentally indivisible” (p. 86).
To relate this to Latour’s principle of irreduction, I propose a corollary principle, that infinite reducibility equals irreducibility. To put this succinctly: rather than viewing the irreducible particularity of things as related to Harman’s withdrawn substance (island-like thing-in-itself-ness, wholly divorced from all relationship), we can, following Morrison's principle, discover it in the infinite potential for reducibility itself. There is support for the infinite scope of reducibility in Harman's (2011) post-Heideggerian object ontology:
...[Contrary to Heidegger's contention,] the hammer as a real tool-being is not located in the basement of the universe at all, since a layer of constituent pieces swarms beneath it, another layer beneath that one, and so forth. Instead of saying that the regress into constituent objects is indefinite, I would go so far as to call it infinite, in spite of the ban found in Kant's Antinomies on ruling either for or against an infinite regress of pieces. After all, to be real means to have a multitude of qualities, both real and perceived. And given that an object must inherently be a unity, its multitude of qualities can only arise from the plurality of its pieces. Thus there is no object without pieces, and an infinite regress occurs. Despite the easy and widespread mockery of the infinite regress, there are only two alternatives, and both are even worse. Instead of the infinite regress we can have a finite regress, in which one ultimate element is the material of everything larger. Or we can have no regress at all, in which there is no depth behind what appears to the human mind. Both options have already been critiqued as undermining and overmining, respectively. And if the infinite regress is often mocked as a theory of "turtles all the way down," the finite regress merely worships a final Almighty Turtle, while the theory of no regress champions a world resting on a turtle shell without a turtle.
With the positing of infinite depth of objects or constitutive relations -- turtles all the way down, reminiscent of Wilber's holonic model -- there is clearly no final reduction possible. Where I possibly differ from Harman is in my rejection of the need to posit a withdrawn substance, since I believe Morrison's Principle of Nondual Rationalism can deliver the particularity and integrity of objects that Harman is seeking. Infinite divisibility, as Morrison (2007) argues, amounts to its opposite: indivisibility in and as the absence of any final divisibility; or as I contend, irreducibility in and as the absence of any final reducibility.
My suggestion, in other words, is to hold reducibility and irreducibility at once. In this view, each particular object or entity, as a unique site of bodying forth of the whole, is infinitely reducible, there being no end to the possible constitutive relations or compositional elements we can trace out. At the same time, each particular, in eluding any final reduction, is also at once absolutely unique and wholly irreducible.
In an inter-religious or trans-lineage spiritual context, this notion has at least two interesting implications: 1) It scuttles easy, perennial philosophical, cross-tradition equations of religious concepts or categories, since, while such comparisons can be made – and can indeed be helpful and fruitful – the absolute particularity and integrity of spiritual realities ensures that no such comparison will ever be adequate to capture the fullness of any particular enaction; and 2) this resistance to ultimate reduction suggests, also, that spiritual – or any other – realities cannot be ultimately or finally reduced to any other particular parts or processes, using any of the reductive categories of choice, whether cultural or biological or psychological. Even tetra-enaction, while a useful and powerful concept, cannot finally exhaust or reductively account for the mystery of any particular emergent.
Thus, to relate this back to the concept of participatory enaction, and the concern with the will-to-power that might be masked in an overly anthropocentric interpretation of it: the principle of irreduction, in the reading I have offered here, dashes the pretension that humans, or human practices, can serve in themselves as ultimate explanatory causes of any particular reality, spiritual or not. We are participants, yes, but in a creative mystery that exceeds and eludes any such final reduction.
Lastly, to return to my observation at the beginning of this section that our spiritual enactions are both continuous and discontinuous: the continuity of our spiritual enactions lies in their infinite reducibility, the unending lines of constitutive or compositional relation we can trace out from each, unique bodying forth of the whole; and the discontinuity lies in the absolute particularity, the irreducibility of each emergent reality. In being what it is, irreducibly, every thing is inviolable, an utter concreteness. If we like, we can view this as an extension – a further democratization – of Marc Gafni’s notion of the Unique Self. Everything, every enaction, every bodying forth, is, in the sense I have indicated above, a unique self.
Note: I have done a more thorough re-working of the above, developing the argument a bit more, getting rid of the footnote and working Harman's material into the main text.