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 An object is profoundly “withdrawn”--we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either....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.
Yes, the following reiterates Desilet above, from chapter 6.2 (with my bolded emphasis):
“While the idea of the World as an organic and harmonious unity might prove comforting and reassuring, providing us with the sense that we belong to a Whole in which each entity has its proper place, such a conception of being does a profound injustice to the entities that populate the multiple-composition of being and ends up recapitulating the discourse of the master and the logic of ontologies of transcendence. Put differently, concepts of World as an organic Whole or totality foreclose the strange stranger.”
In chapter 6.1 Bryant is with Balder in trying to find an integration of apparent opposites when he says:
“What I aim for with the concept of flat ontology is a synthesis of these two cultures. I desire an ontology capable of doing justice to these strange nonhuman actors, capable of respecting these strange strangers on their own terms, and an ontology capable of doing justice to the phenomenological and the semiotic. Moreover, I believe that such a project is absolutely vital to the future of contemporary thought.”
He also voices Balder’s concern that his approach might be considered object-heavy, might favor immanence (and the withdrawn) over transcendence (and the present):
“The difference between philosophies of transcendence and philosophies of immanence such as those advocated by the flat ontology of onticology can be thematized in terms of Lacan's graphs of sexuation. Here my aim is to argue that onticology and its conception of objects aligns itself with the feminine side of Lacan's graph of sexuation…. Yet doesn't it [onticology] risk…arguing that the true discourse of being falls on the side of the feminine side of Lacan's graphs of sexuation?”
Read it to find out his response.
Archive Fire blog made me aware of this video with Manuel DeLanda, whom many SRists claim as one of their own. (He has a chapter in The Speculative Turn, which I referenced upstream.) I have yet to listen to it all, being 1.5 hours in length, but he begins with a discussion of metaphysics and it contains many of the themes discussed in this thread. Here's AF's intro:
"In this lecture, Manuel De Landa discusses metaphysics, universality, particularity, generality, singularity, realism, mathematics, and social science in relationship to Leonhard Euler, Kurt Gödel, Henri Poincaré and Michel Foucault focusing on a priori truths, virtual capacities, affects, differential calculus, necessity and contingency. Public open lecture for the students and faculty of the European Graduate School EGS Media and Communication Studies department program Saas-Fee Switzerland Europe. 2011."
At around 12 minutes he gets into Deleuze's 'virtual,' following Leibnitz and Spinoza. Interesting.
This from Bryant would suggest a similar stance regarding light as 'ground'. From Chapter 6 of The Democracy of Objects.
"Onticology proposes what might be called, drawing on DeLanda's term yet broadening it, a flat ontology. Flat ontology is a complex philosophical concept that bundles together a variety of ontological theses under a single term. First, due to the split characteristic of all objects, flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself. In this regard, onticology proposes an ontology resonant with Derrida's critique of metaphysics insofar as, in its treatment of beings as withdrawn, it undermines any pretensions to presence within being. If this thesis is persuasive, then metaphysics can no longer function as a synonym for “metaphysics of presence”, nor substance as a synonym for “presence"
I've started to read Chapter 6, beginning to stutter a little on Lacanian graphs of sexuation - slow but interesting going.
The 'hot and dense' reference made me laugh, btw. My supposed passion for Pam and her attributes is a standing joke in my house.
Earlier, you said you would likely side with the Buddhist view over Bryant's (i.e., that independent, self-existing entities would have no reason to change). Are you just reiterating Bryant's view, for the purpose of clarifying the OOO position? Or are you unclear where you really stand on this? (I'm asking because I'm in a similar place; I lean towards the Buddhist view, but I'm trying to give this other view serious consideration).
I would side with the Buddhist view because I assume it emerges from a deeper engagement with reality than Bryant's thought. A higher level of consciousness if you like. That said, I see the world as 'evolving' and creating new forms of thought and discourse that emerge from the moment, and have a power and relevance from that local emergence. In this sense I think we should be learning from thought now rather than automatically appealing to authority, no matter how much we might respect that authority. And of course, there is the notion of ontological enactment: it is possible to see both OOO and Buddhist thinkers as carving out/creating/enacting worlds.
In any case, I'm not sure that the OOO view and the Buddhist view are necessarily incompatible. Do you think they truly are?
And as I've said several times now, and in keeping with my faith in Buddhist access to a depth beyond the simply propositional, my bottom line is really closer to that of Morton, or even Harman, when they talk of aesthetics, style, and rhetoric as the royal road for access to reality. Or as Harman says 'aesthetics is first philosophy'. Now and then the feeling arises with Bryant that, while he is an absolutely phenomenal thinker, his mode of thought will always be the futile exercise of propositional thought attempting to fully sound paradox and mystery. It truly feels limited in this sense. The concept and the thing are never equivalent. They can, however, be made to 'poetically' resonate together, and in so doing connect at the deepest level. I believe Adorno is an exemplar of this approach, both in the content of his thought, and the attempt to perform that content. Proust another. In this line, I find the different affective charges these various OOO writers give quite interesting to note. ('writers' being Bryant, Morton, Harman)
Here's a nice interview with Graham Harman in which he talks of aesthetics and philosophy.
On another, not unrelated tip. I've had this odd hankering these last few days to simply go outside and look at things and see how I felt about relations and objects - which makes more sense? I finally did so, and I have to say that objects won out. It was quite curious to look at the world and think of withdrawn depths, divided nows, sensual allure (that last a term from Harman) I suppose, though, it could depend on what you'd been reading recently. :)
And - for what it's worth - listening to Andrew Cohen this morning on Buddhist Geeks. He spoke of his quite extensive experience with Buddhist meditation, but also of the conviction from his teenage awakening experience that reality is a 'thing', rather than emptiness. That, too, interesting in the context of this thread.
Ed, I listened to some of the DeLanda lecture last night and enjoyed it (skipping ahead to some of the sections you highlighted). I'll return to it later to hear the whole thing.
Dial: I would side with the Buddhist view because I assume it emerges from a deeper engagement with reality than Bryant's thought. A higher level of consciousness if you like. That said, I see the world as 'evolving' and creating new forms of thought and discourse that emerge from the moment, and have a power and relevance from that local emergence. In this sense I think we should be learning from thought now rather than automatically appealing to authority, no matter how much we might respect that authority. And of course, there is the notion of ontological enactment: it is possible to see both OOO and Buddhist thinkers as carving out/creating/enacting worlds.
Thanks for the clarification. I wasn't advocating for accepting the Buddhist position on authority; I just wasn't clear whether you were arguing your own position in that quote (seeming to be aligning with Bryant), or whether you were just trying to present Bryant's views.
Regarding seeing Buddhist and OOO thinkers as carving out/creating/enacting worlds, yes, that is how I'd see it, but I'm not sure OOO thinkers would accept that. Would they, in your view?
Dial: In any case, I'm not sure that the OOO view and the Buddhist view are necessarily incompatible. Do you think they truly are?
I'm not sure yet; it depends, in part, on how the withdrawn aspect of objects is conceived. That's one reason I asked earlier whether OOO conceives of the withdrawn, non-related aspect of objects as always the same. Is the withdrawn part of an apple always the same aspect of the apple -- a constant of sorts -- or do the apple's 'manifest face' and 'withdrawn aspect(s)' shift and change?
Dial: And as I've said several times now, and in keeping with my faith in Buddhist access to a depth beyond the simply propositional, my bottom line is really closer to that of Morton, or even Harman, when they talk of aesthetics, style, and rhetoric as the royal road for access to reality. Or as Harman says 'aesthetics is first philosophy'. Now and then the feeling arises with Bryant that, while he is an absolutely phenomenal thinker, his mode of thought will always be the futile exercise of propositional thought attempting to fully sound paradox and mystery. It truly feels limited in this sense. The concept and the thing are never equivalent. They can, however, be made to 'poetically' resonate together, and in so doing connect at the deepest level. I believe Adorno is an exemplar of this approach, both in the content of his thought, and the attempt to perform that content. Proust another. In this line, I find the different affective charges these various OOO writers give quite interesting to note. ('writers' being Bryant, Morton, Harman)
I returned to Morton's essay briefly this morning and enjoyed his style. I relate to it more than I do to Bryant's. Awhile back, I was reading a David Abram's newest book, Becoming Animal, and while he isn't in the OOO or SR camps, to my knowledge, he may be akin to OOO in his attempt to wed aesthetics and philosophy (usually leaning more towards the former than the latter). His book is a poetic chronicle of 'object encounters,' a meditation on the teeming world of local forms (and a call to refuse reduction of these mysterious, alluring, confronting forms to supposedly more 'fundamental' or 'real' components, such as atoms or strings or 'linguistic constructions').
Dial: On another, not unrelated tip. I've had this odd hankering these last few days to simply go outside and look at things and see how I felt about relations and objects - which makes more sense? I finally did so, and I have to say that objects won out. It was quite curious to look at the world and think of withdrawn depths, divided nows, sensual allure (that last a term from Harman) I suppose, though, it could depend on what you'd been reading recently. :)
I expect that the reading material likely did play a role, based on my own experience with such experiments. But I don't say that in a dismissive way, since I agree that rhetoric can inspire new modes of enaction, new (surprising) encounters, etc.
Dial: And - for what it's worth - listening to Andrew Cohen this morning on Buddhist Geeks. He spoke of his quite extensive experience with Buddhist meditation, but also of the conviction from his teenage awakening experience that reality is a 'thing', rather than emptiness. That, too, interesting in the context of this thread.
I don't take Cohen very seriously, especially his philosophical reflections, which seem pretty lightweight to me. I'm not the sharpest philosophical thinker, either, but I nevertheless have never been impressed by his philosophical insights.
Zizek in The Speculative Turn:
"The last great breakthrough was quantum physics, and it compels us to...drop the assertion of ‘fully existing external reality’ as the basic premise of materialism—on the contrary, its premise is the ‘non-All’ of reality, its ontological incompleteness.... Materialism has nothing to do with the assertion of the inert density of matter; it is, on the contrary, a position which accepts the ultimate Void of reality—the consequence of its central thesis on the primordial multiplicity is that there is no ‘substantial reality’, that the only ‘substance’ of the multiplicity is Void" (406).
Morton: ... (2) Language is radically nonhuman--even when humans use it.
I've been reviewing Morton's essay again, and I noted the sentence above, which reminds me of Levin's book, Before the Voice of Reason, particularly of his comments in the first full paragraph on page 55. (The PDF won't allow me to copy and paste from it). Morton doesn't develop the idea in the above point, at least in this essay, but I see possible connections to both Levin and Bhaskar in the claim. Of course, Levin makes an appeal to "Nature" that Morton would reject, but his point that our language and thought do not constitute -- but, in some sense, are pre-constituted by the solicitations of -- the various entities of nature, seems compatible with the anti-anthropocentrism found in both Morton and Bhaskar. Levin's overall view may be closer to Bhaskar than Morton, actually -- appealing, as it does, to an image of the many voices of nature being "folded" into our own, and describing the task of (an impossible) anamnesis we must undergo to retrieve them. Just another little thread ...