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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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'll be interested to hear it, but I'm skeptical at this point. It depends on what is meant by this, though.
As some background, we used to have long discussions here (esp. on the previous, Gaia version of this forum) about whether the so-called transformation/translation distinction Wilber uses had any merit, or whether the "real" transformation enacted by various contemplative disciplines was really generatively located in the tradition's rhetoric, not its various meditative practices. I don't think any of us got exactly on the same page with regard to that discussion, but my recollection is that we generally agreed that a hard and fast distinction or division between translation and transformation is untenable, and that any meditative transformation achieved in a tradition is at least inseparable from its rhetorical/translative function. One of the discussants (Kelamuni) seemed to be of the opinion that contemplative practices were really little more than translative/rhetorical practices, and that if any change were effected in a practitioner, it was "located" primarily in and as a change in translation. On my side, I agreed that this was part of what is happening, but felt it was important also to consider that contemplative paths effect changes not only in translation but also in the body and brain -- that sustained meditation practices can effect changes in that objective vehicle that was/is the site for translative work but which exceeds and ontically grounds epistemological/translative work.
Reading, too, is the impact/meeting of body with body, just as might be found anywhere else in experience.
Reading about having children is indeed the impact/meeting of body with (a kind of) body, but it is not at all the same kind of body/body impact or meeting, in my experience, as actually having, (be)holding, feeding, and living and playing with children.
Or, to use a tired cliche, reading a menu may be a kind of body-to-body event or encounter, but it is not qualitatively the same body/body event as eating a meal. And we can do without the former, but not the latter.
To reiterate a point made above, for humans mhetaoric is not only the embodied metaphor that is used to translate/transform our basic categories into concepts, it is the basic categories themselves. It is how an object defines its boundary with the world and also how this permeable boundary exchanges with the world. It is at this direct level of body/mind-environment interaction where the boundary-interaction is itself mhetaoric. These basic categories are not just human but an aspect of any object. The boundary is the menu (distinction) and the meal (communion).
I'm reminded of our discussion of Marks-Tarlow in this thread. Some of her opening comments:
“Yet whether we consider our bodies or minds, the subjective experience of closed boundaries rests precisely on the opposite state of affairs – wide-open portals that continually allow transaction between inside and outside, body and world, self and not-self.... Boundaries are everywhere, yet most are permeable.... Fractals are dynamic process-structures that etch time into space. They are boundary keepers that negotiate spatial and temporal interfaces between different forces and dimensions of being. My thesis is that fractals provide the paradoxical foundation by which different levels of nature both connect and separate. Every boundary becomes a door, every border a portal. Because the same dynamics hold inside as well as outside the psyche, fractal geometry provides a bridge and language for linking inside and outside worlds. Whether they occur in nature, our bodies or minds, fractal separatrices or boundaries reveal infinite, hidden frontiers in the space between ordinary, Euclidean dimensions.” (My emphases.)
She then discusses Spencer-Brown and Varela's extension of his work, which abandons Aristotelian logic and the excluded middle and leads to systems that are “functionally closed, yet structurally open.” But Varela went further and “assert[ed] that paradox becomes embodied at the most basic level, in the very form itself.” We see the same discussion in Bryant's Intro to TDOO discussing Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form. And it is to this that I point with mhetaoric, the embodied laws of form that negotiate interfaces of any kind.
Granted I disagree with MT when it comes to her interpretation of this material, where she says things like this: “The still controversial Copenhagen interpretation asserts that at the quantum level, the very act of observation is necessary to materialize that which is observed.” As if there is this consciousness per se, a metaphysical concept, at core creating the material. Whereas Bryant's object ontology defines it much more materially, where the material itself is both observer and observed. Again we see our shentong/rangtong debate. Still, I think MT, like Edwards, is getting at the interface, the media holons, in a way that perhaps Bryant is not.
MT posted her paper in the thread, “Semiotic seams.” While I still see her metaphysics therein using number at origin, she still gets at some important points. For she uses the imaginary/real in ways similar to Bryant's use of the virtual/actual. Quoting Jung for example on p. 50 there is a distinction between an object and its properties and characteristics with its irreducible core. As stated though, instead of Bryant's virtual endo-relations we have the metaphysical number, “by which essences actually precede evolution and biological reproduction” (57). This is extended with Mandelbrot's fractal geometry, which I discussed in this thread as extending the metaphysics. Whereas for Bryant and Delanda, for example, we get a different reading.
Still, I take her point that these boundary conditions are indeed fundamentally ontological and recursive at every level up to the semiotic, hence the name of the article “semiotic seams.” She sees the semiotic level as indicative of the same recursive boundary dynamics as lower, pre-linguistic levels, even as foundational conditions of the ontological. Hence the semiotic as usually construed, while admittedly a higher emergent level concomittant with language, still displays the same boundary dynamics as a simpler object without human consciousness. And how we can use semiotics to express this condition. So I extend the metaphor of rhetoric all the way down, as does MT, to that communication that takes place at every border.
Which also then adds new meaning to the phrase: “May I see your papers please?”
As if there is this consciousness per se, a metaphysical concept, at core creating the material. Whereas Bryant's object ontology defines it much more materially, where the material itself is both observer and observed. Again we see our shentong/rangtong debate.
Are you criticizing (as bad metaphysics) the notion of consciousness as an elemental feature of reality (as object is for Bryant), or rather the specific notion of consciousness as a disembodied, Spirit-like super-Self that "creates" everything?
She sees the semiotic level as indicative of the same recursive boundary dynamics as lower, pre-linguistic levels, even as foundational conditions of the ontological. Hence the semiotic as usually construed, while admittedly a higher emergent level concomittant with language, still displays the same boundary dynamics as a simpler object without human consciousness. And how we can use semiotics to express this condition.
This is similar to Joel's approach, as well, in his interface philosophy: epistemological distinctions are fractal recursions of sub-representational/ontic interrelations or interfaces.
However, if you are stretching "rhetoric" all the way down (as mhetaoric), as describing object-interfaces at all levels, then that seems to suggest semiosis (signification) goes all the way down and therefore it isn't appropriate to describe semiosis as a level. Rather, human language is a level of semiosis. As is "rhetoric." (This is, as I understand it, the view of the seminal semiotician, Peirce). In fact, semiosis might be the word you're looking for with your word, mhetaoric.
"Boundary" plays a big role in Oleg's new paper, which I posted here recently. Granted, his treatment seems to hew closer to the "idealist" than the embodied orientations we've been exploring here. (I will finish reading the paper this week and plan to respond to him with questions about it then).
Back to the question of metaphysics and post-metaphysics, I just want to make a little parenthetical remark here, which is that most of what we're discussing in this marathon-length thread is flat-out metaphysics. I know you already are well aware of this, but since we've been making some positive assertions about the nature and structure of reality as such (having boundary dynamics, involving laws of form, etc), I think it's important to acknowledge from time to time the speculative nature of our exercises here.
Yes, I can see it's similar to Joel's work. I wish he were more intelligible to me so I could relate those similarities. Regarding conscious per se I mean the second option, which is made explicit in MT: "...essences actually precede evolution and biological reproduction.” As to your 2nd paragraph I've explicitly laid out the different meanings of how I use rhetoric, noting the difference between its usual definition as just the level of human conceptual language and the more general meaning of mhetaoric. Hence it can be both the former and the latter depending on context. And as to the meanings of metaphysics and postmetaphysics we've established this before as well, i.e., transcendent ontheology and transcendental ontology. So yes, metaphysics more generally but postmetaphysics more specifically. As to Pierce and semiosis, I've not studied him so will investigate if the term has this more general meaning and if so include it.
As I often do, I turn to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy to get a general idea of something. For now just this from Pierce's entry (more later):
“What Peirce meant by 'semeiotic' is almost totally different from what has come to be called 'semiotics,' and which hails not so much from Peirce as from Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles W. Morris.... Peircean semeiotic derives ultimately from the theory of signs of Duns Scotus and its later development by John of St. Thomas (John Poinsot).”
This section of my source is interesting:
"Peirce held that science suggests that the universe has evolved from a condition of maximum freedom and spontaneity into its present condition, in which it has taken on a number of habits, sometimes more entrenched habits and sometimes less entrenched ones. With pure freedom and spontaneity Peirce tended to associate mind, and with firmly entrenched habits he tended to associate matter (or, more generally, the physical). Matter he tended to regard as 'congealed' mind, and mind he tended to regard as 'effete' matter. Thus he tended to see the universe as the end-product-so-far of a process in which mind has acquired habits and has 'congealed' (this is the very word Peirce used) into matter.
"This notion of all things as being evolved psycho-physical unities of some sort places Peirce well within the sphere of what might be called 'the grand old-fashioned metaphysicians,' along with such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Whitehead, et al. Some contemporary philosophers might be inclined to reject Peirce out of hand upon discovering this fact. Others might find his notion of psycho-physical unities not so very offputting or indeed even attractive. What is crucial is that Peirce argued that mind pervades all of nature in varying degrees: it is not found merely in the most advanced animal species.
"This pan-psychistic view, combined with his synechism, meant for Peirce that mind is extended in some sort of continuum throughout the universe. Peirce tended to think of ideas as existing in mind in somewhat the same way as physical forms exist in physically extended things. He even spoke of ideas as 'spreading' out through the same continuum in which mind is extended. This set of conceptions is part of what Peirce regarded as (his own version of) Scotistic realism, which he sharply contrasted with nominalism. He tended to blame what he regarded as the errors of much of the philosophy of his contemporaries as owing to its nominalistic disregard for the objective existence of form."
From Balder's 2nd source:
"Semiosis in this sense is by no means restricted to processes in higher organisms, to culture and social convention. Any primitive biological organism already interacts semiotically with its environment when it selects or avoids energetic or material objects in its environment for the purpose of its own survival."
"Ecosemiotics is the study of the semiotic interrelations between organisms and their environment. This definition presupposes that the center of interest of an ecological semiotics is not a homo semioticus, but more generally, an organismus semioticus.... Ecosemiotics will be a study in sign processes that is not restricted to arbitrary and artificial signs. It will also, and perhaps primarily, be concerned with natural signs mediating between the organism and its environment."
This one sounds like Bryant:
"Environment, according to Uexküll (1940: 158, 334), is not Haeckel's 'outer world,' but rather a subjective Umwelt, consisting of an inner world as given by the organism's perception and specific operational world of practical interaction with the environment. Umwelt, in this sense, is the way in which the environment is represented to the organism's mind, and it comprises the scope of the organism's operational interaction with its environment. Because of the species-specific differences between organisms, their different needs, capacities, and perspectives of their environment, there are as many kinds of Umwelt as there are species (or even organisms). Every species and every organism can only perceive whatever the biological structure of its receptors, its brain, and its specific perspective of its environment allows it to perceive."
Yes, I was reading especially about Uexküll's work a few weeks ago, for a discussion I was having on another forum. (I had introduced biosemiotics there, and some members there had thought, mistakenly, that it was a form of Creation Science). Uexküll's notions, above, sound strikingly similar to Varela's autopoietic-enactive cognition, as well.
From a post by Adam at Knowledge Ecology:
"Pansemiosis refers to the position that all entities—to whatever limited degree—are sign interpreters even if only at the level of basic physical or chemical reactions. Here signs and causality are inextricably intertwined all of the way down.... While it is true that epistemic processes are interactive features of an ecosystem, it is simply not true that these processes emerge only with the human, or even with the 'higher animals.' In this sense ecosystems are semiotic (i.e., interpretive) all of the way down. We can call this approach to ecosystems 'ecosemiotics or 'biosemiotics'.... At no point in either chemical or biological processes is there any such thing as 'just' causal relations—these relations are simultaneously causally interactive and semiotically interpretive. Knowledge ecologies thus predate human actors (and whatever complex mammals you want to throw on the list) by billions of years. Its our job as humans to align human knowledge with the other ecologies of knowledge, rather than the other way around.
"We might also note here that the framework I am proposing is entirely consistent with the enactivist paradigm within which even single cells engage in basic modes of semiotic relationship with their environment. It is the autopoietic closure of a cell that creates not just a physical membrane, but an interpretive membrane that puts the cell into a dynamic relationship with its ecology."