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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
One answer to that question would be the second law of cybernetics -- a function of positive feedback loops in a system. Here's Joanna Macy (on four characteristics of living systems, the third of which relates to your question):
1. Each system, from atom to galaxy, is whole. That means that it is not reducible to its components. Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the interactive relationships between its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating "emergent properties" and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts -- just as the wetness of water could not be predicted from oxygen and hydrogen before they combined, or just as the tensile strength of steel far exceeds the combined strengths of iron and nickel. This property of open systems challenges the universal applicability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that cornerstone of classical science on which rest notions of entropy, the running down of all life.
2. Despite continual flow-through of matter-energy and information, and indeed thanks to that flow-through, open systems are able to maintain their balance; they self-stabilize. By virtue of this capacity, which von Bertalanffy called fliessgleichgewicht (flux-equilibrium), systems can self-regulate to compensate for changing conditions in their environment. This homeostatic function is performed by registering / monitoring the effects of their own behavior and matching it with their norms, like a thermostat. It is understood as a function of feedback -- negative or deviation-reducing feedback, to be precise (also called cybernetics one). This is how we maintain our body temperature, heal from a cut, or ride a bicycle.
3. Open systems not only maintain their balance amidst the flux, but also evolve in complexity. When challenges from their environment persist, they can fall apart or adapt by reorganizing themselves around new, more responsive norms. This, too, is a function of feedback -- positive or deviation-amplifying feedback (also called cybernetics two). It is how we learn and how we evolved from the amoeba. But if our changing behaviors are not compatible with the challenges we face, and do not achieve a new balance with them, the positive feedback loop gets out of control and goes into "runaway," leading eventually to systems breakdown.
4. Every system is a "holon" -- that is, it is both a whole in its own right, comprised of subsystems, and simultaneously an integral part of a larger system. Thus holons form "nested hierarchies," systems within systems, circuits within circuits, fields within fields. Each new holonic level -- say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family -- generates new emergent properties that are nonreducible to the capacities of the separate components. Far different than the hierarchies of control familiar to socieities where rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holarchies) order tends to arise from the bottom up; the system self-generates from spontaneously adaptive cooperation between the parts, in mutual benefit. Order and differentiation go hand in hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.
This post I contributed to the Machines thread may also be relevant.
“In Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, DeLanda remarks that ‘[s]ingularities [...] influence the behaviour [of objects] by acting as attractors for [their] trajectories.’ Here it is crucial to note that the concept of attractors is not a teleological concept. Attractors are not goals towards which a substance tends, but are rather the potentialities towards which a substance tends under a variety of different conditions in the actualization of its qualities…. In this respect, DeLanda's attractors are extremely close to Bhaskar's generative mechanisms developed in A Realist Theory of Science.”
“The point here is that, if we don't attend to the regime of attraction in which the autopoietic system develops, we fall prey to a tendency to treat local manifestations as strictly resulting from innate factors in the system, rather than seeing them as results of an interaction between both system-specific properties of the system and perturbations from the environment that are translated into information which then selects system-states. Here the conclusion seems to be that development does not have any one particular attractor in the teleological sense.”
I was just addressing the capacity of systems to self-transform and evolve in response to 'perturbations,' which is what I thought you were asking about. This doesn't require an in-built telos, in my understanding. Are you saying something more than this, that you think it is important also to include a teleonomic component in the description of objects? (This is the direction David Bohm went at the end of his life...)
The existence of an evolutionary drive -- an inherently creative impulse to improve, to grow and become better and better, or fuller and fuller -- is a view Cohen is promoting in his Evolutionary Spirituality. It seems lots of Integrally-related folks out there are agree with him. I don't expect you're suggesting something like this, though, so would you mind saying more...?
And as I recall, without citation at this point, an autopoietic system in adapting to environmental changes doesn't necessarily have to increase in complexity but could do the reverse in order to survive, i.e, 'evolve.' Hence evolution per se is not tied to increased complexity.
This is interesting, from chapter 4.1 of TDOO:
“Because systems constitute their own elements it follows that 'systems of a higher (emergent) order can possess less complexity than systems of a lower order because they determine the unity and number of elements that compose them,' along with the relations among these elements.”
McIntosh admits that most physical, biological and social scientists decry teleos to evolution but his only argument is to reduce all of them to "cultural relativism," i.e., the mean green meme 'argument.' I also question his thesis that after 'proving' progress in the cultural domain adds weight to the proof for biological progress.
Now I agree with him that democracy is an advance over feudalism, but that's when we contextualize the parameters being human freedom. It's another thing though to say that human freedom is in-built into the fabric of the universe as some kind of involutionary given or even gradient. Or that humanity is moving therefore towards ultimate liberation. That it is on that trajectory is indeed an evolutionary path but said path is not inherent but rather man-made.
M is right that 'progress' was used by Enlightenment thinkers to rationalize colonialism and environmental degradation. Hence the rise of pomo to challenge progress. Per the usual kennilingus he says pomo only focuses on the disasters and threw out the dignities. The dignities he lists though sound more to me like the pomo movement's achievements, not modernism's. And to solve pomo he takes the usual Hegelian and kennilinguistic move of transcend-and-include.
It is exactly here that perhaps kennililnguists can learn from the OOO* instead of reducing them too into the camp of the green meme. But it seems unlikely to me because that would require them to give up the Hegelian dialectic so critical to their AQAL 'hyperobject.'
*Like Bryant above, who accepts "higher emergent order," yet not in the way McIntosh does.