After the hectic week I’ve had I’m not firing on all cylinders this evening so hopefully I’ll be somewhat coherent here, but I wanted to draw attention to Peter Gratton’s interview with Paul Ennis where he heavily discusses speculative realism. Already Ennis’s post has generated a lot of discussion (here, here, here, here, and Complete Lies well thought out remarks here). Without repeating Harman’s own remarks, I wanted to zero in on a particular passage in Ennis’s interview. Ennis remarks,

Hegel, and I think Meillassoux quotes him on this, said we cannot sneak up on the ‘thing itself’ to see what it is really like or put differently consciousness cannot get around itself to know the really real (the correlationist circle in Meillassoux’s terms). Hegel has a wonderful solution to this problem in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He simply says that discussions of the ‘in itself’ is something that is only ‘really’ happening for consciousness so when it comes down to it the ‘in itself’ is ‘really’ a feature of thinking and so, technically, there is no in itself object out there to be understood. The ‘in itself’ is not something consciousness is unfamiliar with – it is something that belongs to thought itself…

I more or less agree with Harman’s analysis to the effect that this thesis expresses the quintessence of what OOO opposes. However, approaching Ennis’s remarks from another angle, I also think it is suggestive of the wrong sort of question. In other words– and here I’m not trying to single out Ennis by any means –we have to ask if Hegel is a wonderful solution to a particular problem, what is the problem and question to which this solution responds? And here I think there can be no doubt, the problem to which Hegel’s “solution” responds is the epistemological problem of how it is possible to know the thing-in-itself.

However, it is precisely here, among other sites, that Hegel and OOO parts ways. While it is certainly true that there are variants of speculative realism that are almost entirely concerned with questions of epistemology (Brassier comes to mind), when OOO defends realism what’s at stake is not epistemology but ontology. In other words, it’s of crucial importance to an understanding of OOO that we distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism. Epistemological realism is a thesis about knowledge to the effect that objects out there in the world are “really like” our representations of them or that there is a correspondence between intellect and thing. Ontological realism is the thesis that objects are independent of human culture, language, cognition, and perception, that they would be what they are regardless of whether we regard them through any of these agencies, and that they exist in their own right rather than simply being constructions of humans. For OOO the question and problem is not that of how we know entities or the in-itself, and this because all objects already withdraw from any relation they enter into such that they are in excess of these relations.

read on!

In this regard, there’s a sense in which OOO sides with Kant rather than Hegel. Kant’s virtue was to have preserved the in-itself over against any representations, whereas Hegel attempts to establish the identity, in the strongest possible sense, of representation and the represented. Kant’s vice was his failure to recognize that what is true of the human-world gap is true of any relation between two or more objects regardless of whether or humans are involved.

What OOO wishes to understand is something of the being of objects. It is not after a representational knowledge of these objects. Now all of this certainly seems very paradoxical. For how can you say what objects are without first knowing objects? This would be a variant of Hegel’s famous criticism of Kant: In drawing a distinction between the in-itself and phenomena must we not already know both sides of the distinction? Perhaps. But what OOO is claiming is precisely that it belongs to the being of objects to withdraw from relation, whether cognitive or otherwise, or to exceed any relation that the object enters into. The desire to establish an identity between intellect and thing– an adaequatio rei et intellectus –which culminates in Hegel’s system as its most radical formulation (the identity of knowledge and being, of substance and subject, of identity and difference, etc) is at the heart of ontotheology insofar as it is premised on presence as the ultimate mark of being. Yet this ontotheological premise of premise is radically undercut by OOO insofar as no object, for OOO, ever comes to presence either “in itself”, for cognition, or in relation to other objects.

Žižek, speaking of Wagner, likes to speak of us as being healed by the spear that smote us and it is in this context, I believe, that OOO is particularly interesting. When Žižek speaks of the spear that smote us as healing us he is alluding to the way in which the wound, far from being the problem, is, in fact, the solution. In a psychoanalytic context, for example, your symptom is not something to be eradicated, but rather, over the course of analysis you undergo a subjective transformation with respect to your symptom, coming to discover that it is the very secret of your desire and source of your jouissance, such that the removal of the symptom would amount to the removal of the very principle of your subjectivity. It is not that you continue to live your symptom in the same way– washing your hand three hundred times a day, for example –these sorts of minor symptoms do in fact disappear. Rather, it’s that the fissure that generated those “empirical symptoms” is itself transformed.

Something like this, I think, is at the heart of OOO’s ontological gesture. For the last 300 or so years we have had variants of skepticism. Philosophy has grown to be equated with epistemology tout court (Althusser, in Reading Capital for example, treats “philosophy” and “epistemology” as synonyms) and this epistemology has largely been skeptical in nature. These skepticisms take a variety of forms. Sometimes they are radical skepticisms like Hume’s, showing us that knowledge is impossible. At other times they are more subtle skepticisms like Kant’s, arguing that knowledge is restricted to appearances or phenomena for humans. And then we get all the heirs of Kant such as the linguistic idealists, the social constructivists, the Wittgensteinians, etc., etc., etc. Kant’s move was to restrict knowledge to images on the wall of Plato’s cave (appearances) arguing that we can never escape the cave. We are all heirs of this move today. Between Kant and later Wittgenstein, for example, there is not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. What Kant and Wittgenstein disagree about is the mechanism by which appearances or phenomena are constructed for us. For Kant it is the a priori categories of the understanding, the a priori forms of intuition, and reason. For Wittgenstein it is language games. At heart the thesis, however, is the same. That we are restricted to appearances or the “for-us”. And in all these cases, in this infinite variety of anti-realisms, what is everywhere and always being argued is that presence cannot be attained or established.

OOO’s move is not to stubbornly claim that “no, our representations correspond to things in themselves!”, but rather OOO makes the Wagnerian gesture of healing us on the sphere that smote us. It’s thesis is not some new-fangled attempt to attain presence or an adaequatio rei et intellectus, it is not an attempt to square the circle purporting to show that relations don’t change things. Rather, OOO challenges the central ontological premise of these epistemic skepticisms: the thesis that objects are present to themselves or to other objects. And in arguing that objects withdraw from all relations, whether humans or otherwise, OOO is simultaneously able to integrate the claims of these skepticisms (albeit in a properly ontological register) and turn what appeared as a vice (the impossibility of knowing objects) into a virtue (the very being of objects). Where previously the wound was seen as residing in us (objects withdraw from us because of the manner in which our cognition actively reworks them), the cut, the withdrawal, is now located in the things themselves.

But really, at the end of the day, what is the “cash-value” of all this. In many respects I think Jane Bennett sums up the importance of this move best in her newly released book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things in her “critique of critique”. This is all the more satisfying in that while Bennett’s thought displays a great affinity for OOO, she is not herself an OOO theorist and, at least in this book, does not even seem aware of object-oriented thought. In this connection it is always pleasurable to encounter others arriving at similar conclusions and claims. Speaking of the Enlightenment project of demystification, Bennett writes:

For this task [uncovering the volcanic inner life of things], demystification, that most popular of practices in critical theory, should be used with caution and sparingly, because demystification presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things. This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency. Karl Marx sought to demystify commodities and prevent their fetishization by showing them to be invested with an agency that belongs to humans; patriotic Americans under the Bush regime exposed the self-interest, greed, or cruelty inside the “global war on terror” or inside the former attorney general Alberto Gonzale’s version of the rule of law; the feminist theorist Wendy Brown demystifies when she promises to “remove the scales from our eyes” and reveal that “the discourse of tolerance… [valorizes] the West, othering the rest… while feigning to do no more than… extend the benefits of liberal thought and practices.”

What demystification uncovers is always something human [my emphasis], for example, the hidden quest for domination on the part of some humans over others, a human desire to deflect responsibility for harms done, or an unjust distribution of (human) power. Demystification tends to screen from view the vitality of matter and to reduce political agency to human agency. (xiv – xv)

What Bennett says here of critical theory and the project of demystification holds, mutatis mutandis, for all variants of anti-realism or correlationism. Indeed, the elementary gesture of critical theory (broadly construed) is derived directly from Kant’s “Copernican turn”. Putting it in metaphorical terms, this gesture consists in arguing that our relation to all objects in the world is really a reflection in a mirror where we don’t recognize ourselves in the image we see, and then proceeding to show how that image in the mirror, that image that seems to be something other, is really ourselves. Critical vigilance thus consists in coming to recoup that image, to see that it was really us all along. And in this respect, all critical projects more or less aspire to the Parmenidean dictum to establish the identity of thinking and being; a project anathema to any and all realisms. And what is found in this gesture is always the human, nothing but the human.

It is this problem I was getting at when I proposed “the hegemonic fallacy” as treating one difference (in this case the human) as overdetermining all other differences. Alternatively, Harman has proposed the fecund concepts of overmining and undermining where objects are erased or reduced to something else in the case of undermining.

Critical theory has, I believe, its place and should be retained in some form. However, the problem is that in treating all other objects in the world as mere reflective surfaces for “alienated” human reflections, the agency of nonhuman objects, whether animate or inanimate is lost and completely obscured from view. As Bennett puts it, what we forget is “…the capacity of things– edibles, commodities, storms, metals– not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). We are today intoxicated by the demystificatory gesture of critical theory to such an extent that we have become blind to the manner in which objects are actants or actors in their own right, quite independent of how humans refract them in their representations. And just as the intoxicated person is incapable of seeing certain things, we are so drunk with the critical gesture that we have trouble even seeing that we’re making it.

No wonder then that ecophilosophers, media and technology theorists, a number of feminist theorists, animal theorists, and so on are often suspicious of critical theory. For what possible use can this demystificatory gesture have for the ecophilosopher or the media and technology theorist who isn’t simply trying to determine the way in which humans reflect themselves in alienated form in objects behind their backs, as it were, but who is genuinely trying to understand what difference the lightbulb makes in the world we live in, how ecosystems work and function, or what impact fiber optic cables make on social relations? These are complex relations that far exceed how we represent or signify objects, and where objects are not simply “inert and passive lumps of matter”, but where they are actants or actors in their own right, surprising ourselves in all sorts of way, generating all sorts of unintended consequences, generating possibilities of human action that they weren’t explicitly designed for. These complex fields need to be thought and the thinking of these fields requires something other than the anti-realist gesture of recognizing that we are the ones in the mirror.

If flat ontology means anything, then it entails the fostering of a sensibility in which objects are treated as actants in their own right, contributing their own differences, such that they aren’t simply vehicles for human representations or alienated reflections projected outward into the world. And this is perhaps also what a communism of objects would be, for where Marx placed all his emphasis on human economic production, treating things as merely passive matter to be reworked into human commodities, a flat ontology treats objects as themselves being active forces in these relations, contributing their own differences, such that the world of nature, the animal, the technological, etc., cannot be separated from the world of the social. What a flat ontology rejects is the unilateralization of the human-object relation where all the important differences are seen as issuing from the human side of that relation, such that the object side is seen merely as a passive stuff to be formed in our own image like God creating man. What is ironic is that the anti-realist gesture, which so often decries the will to power, the will to domination, the technocratic attitude that sees mastery of nature embodied at the heart of technology, fails to recognize that it’s central thesis is the highest exemplar of that posture that would reduce all the other beings to nothing other than beings for-us.

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