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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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... 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.

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Here's a 4-page passage by Panikkar touching on some related themes (from a somewhat different perspective):  Radical Relativity.

Bryant explores several of the problems encountered with his idea of substance in this post. A few relevant tidbits:

"From the foregoing we can see why the concepts of multiplicity and difference arise.... The concept of difference arises out of issues of just how to account for the individuality of substance.... Multiplicity invites us to think the identity of substance not as an unchanging substrate but rather as an activity on the part of substance over the course of its ongoing life.

"When we investigate the nature of mind we do not seem to find anything like enduring persons, but rather instead encounter only distributed networks where unity and identity only exist as enacted rather than as a substrate supporting accidental changes. In other words, it increasingly looks like self and personhood are processes and activities, like they are multiplicities, rather than substrates lying beneath change and activity.

"Finally, of course, quantum mechanics significantly call for revisions of our concept of substance at the level of questions of individuation. Traditionally substances are thought as individuated by their location in time and space, yet phenomena such as non-locality present significant challenges to such a concept of individuals. Quantum mechanics calls for us to revise our understanding of substance in terms of findings such as wave-particle duality, non-locality, and subatomic particles that seem capable of continuously popping in and out of existence like Schroedinger’s notorious cat."

Regarding Bryant's last comment above, as to the issue of nonlocality and superluminality I was re-reading some earlier comments in the thread on the topic beginning here. Then I came upon this article by Prigogine et al. While they accept quantum superposition and nonlocality “in this paper we present illustrations of Hegerfeldt's theorem without any appeal to superluminality.” This paper also addresses the topic, where Prigogine and company say “no superluminal speeds are involved.”

While OOO (and any other philosophy) has to address QM perhaps they do not have to accept some of the more spooky interpretations thereof, some of which seem to have a commitment that consciousness is ontologically primary. Or that said consciousness gives us direct access to the totality of the universe, etc. (recall this post). It seems this is where QM needs something like OOO to ground it, and philosophical system dynamicists like Prigogine and Varela.

“We have repeatedly stated in this book that the reconceptualiztion in physics going on today leads from deterministic, reversible processes to stochastic and irreversible ones. We believe that quantum mechanics occupies a kind of intermediate position in this process. There probability appears but not irreversibility. We expect...that the next step will be the introduction of fundamental irreversibility on the microscopic level” (OOOC, 232).

It seems the rest of Prigogine's career went into proving this assertion, with the classical quantum mechanicists fighting him and his colleagues every step of the way. We've seen the same treatment of Barad in QM earlier in the thread.

Also see this interesting site, differentiating systems thinking (structuralism) from complexity thinking (poststructuralism) in relation to storytelling. At least interesting to me as a literature major, since I saw this manifest firsthand in lit-crit. Edgar Morin is mentioned. A chart:

Table 1 - System Thinking and Complexity Thinking (Adapted from Boje, 2008a, chapter on complexity)




Fragments and diverse human agents


Unfinalized, moving, rearranging non-wholes

Part relations

Unmerged agents with different ways of being

Retrospective BME narrative in linear causal chaining

Narrative fragments & prospective antenarratives in nonlinear relationships


Listening & Seeing




Dialogically Polylogical


Emergence in context of Hierarchy

Hey, Ed, you posted something the other day, and I've been looking for it but can't locate it.  I had wanted to comment on it because it seemed to provide an answer to a question I had asked early on in this thread -- whether the "withdrawn" aspect of an object is an always-the-same withdrawn core, in the OOO account, or whether the withdrawn aspect shifts from encounter to encounter -- e.g., whether withdrawing is more like an active property of the system as a whole as it enters into relationship with other entities, where only certain aspects of the system will manifest or "show up" in any actual encounter, while others will remain unactivated or obscured.  The quote you posted the other day -- and I don't know if it was by Bryant, or was just something you were relating to Bryant -- seemed to favor the second account.  Do you recall the quote I'm describing?  Would you agree with this conclusion?

Concerning Bryant's comments on some of the challenges to substance, it seems -- just based on the quotes you offered (I can't view his blog from work) -- that, in identifying substance with systemic activity, he is aligning possibly more closely with Latour than Harman.  Latour rejects the category of substance and speaks, instead, of subsistence...

I'm not sure to which specific post you refer, since I've had quite a few lately. If it's not in this thread it might be in the Complexity and pomo thread, or IPE, or what is the differance. These are the 4 threads I've responded to lately.

As to the withdrawn nature of any particular object/system, to say it has the same core or essence regardless seems antithetical to what Bryant, Derrida, Cilliars or Varela might say. Bryant might say it would then be the same mushy essence for every object. In terms of a linguistic sign, for example, any particular one does not have an infinite number of meanings, though there is quite a bit of excess meaning reserved in any particular usuage. And this excess also leaves open possible future meanings of any particular sign. However a particular sign is not open to mean anything, since it must still retain its autonomous identity, and difference, from other signs through its relational associations. That is one of Cilliars points using Derrida.

Another of Bryant's blog posts is relevant to recent comments above:

"Contrasting my position with Harman’s might be helpful here. For Harman objects have a withdrawn essence that is self-identical and enduring beyond any action on the part of the object.... For me, by contrast...the [object] is not an abiding identity that stands behind the deed. The object is nothing more than its acts but is its acts and sustains itself only in its activities.

"With that said, it doesn’t follow from this that the agency of an object is purely an exo-quality or a result of interactions with other objects. There are endo-processes and exo-processes. Endo-processes consist of activities taking place within an object that are completely unrelated to anything else in the world. while exo-processes are processes that unfold in collaborations with other objects. Here my position can be distinguished from Latour’s."

Thanks -- this is helpful.  I personally think he would do well to align more with Latour, who speaks in terms of subsistence, and various modes of subsistence, rather than "substance."  This would be more in keeping with Bryant's "process" conception of so-called substance.  Also, his idea that the processes that take place within an object are "completely unrelated to anything else in the world" looks, to me, like pure fantasy.

On an OOO-related note, I was playing today with the notion of a BOO: a Body-Oriented Ontology.  Seeing objects as "bodies" -- a term which carries different (more living) connotations than object.  Also, "body" seems to carry more ontological weight than object, which is actually an epistemological term.

I too struggle with statements like that about endo-relations. As my preference is embodied, enactive realism I'm with you on BOO. (Don't get scared folks!) The term body doesn't have to refer to a living body though, as it could be structure of any kind, including inorganic. Since I'm also into linguistics I'm fond of the sign, both as body (signifier) and as metaphor (signified, which is also embodied). I like Bryant on these other types of objects. As you were noting in another thread on enclosures this could also include other types of bodies like buildings, and here Bryant distinguishes between autopoetic and allopoetic objects.

The term body doesn't have to refer to a living body though, as it could be structure of any kind, including inorganic.

Yes, I agree; I didn't mean literally living.  I meant more to point to something like the Latourian notion of actors or actants -- no thing is simply a passive object; it is, in its embodied rounding of a difference, a difference that makes a difference, an act in/of/on the world or other bodies.

We've discussed Latour earlier  in this thread, which references one can find in the search function. As a reminder Latour wrote Chapter 20 of The Speculative Turn.

I'm reading DeLanda's chapter in TST for other reasons to be commented upon forthcoming, but this passage relates to endo-relations per above. While the environment might trigger a reaction:

"A biological creature is defined internally by many complex series of events, some of which close in on themselves forming a causal loop (like a metabolic cycle) exhibiting its own internal states of equilibrium as a whole" (383-4).

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