Michael, over at Struggles With Philosophy has recently been writing some interesting posts on object-oriented ontology (here and here). In today’s post, Michael calls for a move from object-oriented ontology to object-oriented empiricism. In other words, Michael is interested in how OOO might be put into practice. As Michael writes:
At one level I want to differentiate between the theory (or philosophy) of OOP and the praxis of OOP, which will be designated as OOE. The former (OOP) will primarily be engaged in the philosophical discussion and theoretical debates of an object-orient approach, and the main role of OOP will be to produce Object-Oriented Ontologies. The latter (OOE) will primarily be concerned with illustrating the benefits (and limitations) of Object-Oriented Ontologies for the analysis of the experiences of the ‘real’ world, aimming to research particular objects(or events) and how these objects act and relate to other objects. In other words, the Object-Oriented Empiricist will use (or steal) the ontologies produced in OOP and design their research projects in accordance with what object-oriented ontology they adopt.
I feel there seems a need for OOP to move towards the stage of OOE. The rich work of Byrant, Harman, and Shaviro has reached a stage where there is enough theoretical discussion to move towards the empirical analysis of objects. Of course, OOE will have to be familar with the different ontologies of OOP, the debates within OOP, and the consequences of adopting one ontology of OOP over another. For example, a debate within OOP is if an Object-Oriented Ontology needs a virtual dimension, or if Object-Oriented Ontology is purely actual. However, it is time for OOP to develop into OOE, which can show the praxis of OOP.
I’m exceedingly pleased to see Michael thinking in this direction, but I wanted to make a couple of points. First, I think it is sometimes difficult for correlationists to understand what exactly is being proposed with respect to object-oriented “empiricism” or analysis because they think we’re trying to take away their toys (as can be seen in my recent heated discussion with Nate and Tim, see the comments). Michael quite rightly points out that a central feature of object-oriented practice consists in denouncing how the hegemonic fallacy works in correlationist styles of thought. The correlationist tends to hear this as a rejection of, for example, the idea that narrative or signifiers play a role in collectives. But that’s not the issue at all. The critique of hegemonic thinking in correlationist thought is designed to effect a shift from totalitarian or ontotheological forms of metaphysics where one term– the signifier for example –is treated as the ground of everything else, to a pluralistic ontology where a variety of actants are at work in a collective without one God-term trumping the rest.
Here’s the problem with hegemonic thinking: It’s a bit like someone seeking to explain what a seafood pasta is by reference to the garlic. The correlationist somehow wants to explain everything about the pasta in terms of the garlic alone, ignoring the heat of the stove top, the olive oil, the herbs, the seafood, the different stages at which the ingredients are cooked, and the garlic. The garlic becomes the God-term and everything else is subordinated to the garlic and is somehow to issue from it. The object-oriented ontologist comes along and says “yeah, the garlic plays a role, but the order in which the ingredients are put together, the different ingredients, the heat, etc., all play a role”. The correlationist grumbles and scratches his head in disbelief, exclaiming “you’re rejecting garlic?!?” The object-oriented ontologist does a forehead slap and says, “no, that wasn’t the point at all. The point is that the garlic only plays a role. This is the whole problem with the dominant strains of theory in the last couple of decades. They want to explain everything in terms of garlic (signifiers, language, structures, etc), rather than thinking in terms of a flat plane where a variety of different actors are assembled together to form collectives and configurations. They found a neat toy with signifiers, but that toy is only one ingredient and it is not present in all collectives. Ice cream, for example, has no garlic and the planets and their relations have no signifiers. So it goes with the metaphysicians who wish to feign that they aren’t practicing a sort of theology.
More to the point, credit where credit is due. It is my view that OOO is not really doing anything new at the level of practice. Rather, I think all OOO is doing is naming and formalizing a number of ontological presuppositions at work in a wide body of very rich body of theoretical practices that have been around for decades. Thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, McLuhan, Kittler, Latour (in his concrete analyses of science, not his theoretical work), Ong, and many others have been doing something like object-oriented ontology for a long time. Roughly, many of those coming out of certain variants of feminist thought (French feminists largely excluded due to their contamination by post-structuralism and Lacanianism), ecological thought, media studies, science and technology studies, a good deal of non-French or Frankfurt school Marxist thought, and so on have developed theory largely object-oriented in flavor. These orientations have had no patience or inclination for the theological imperialism of the linguistic idealists, and that by virtue of their objects of investigation. In many respects, these are the real pioneers. The flavor of their work has been that of an imbrication, a weaving, of biology, nonhuman actants, social structures, human actants, language, and signs, rather than a neo-Plotinian issuing of entities out of the One of the signifier. The greatness of these theorists is to have thought a world that is flat where you get qualitatively different types of objects or actants interacting with one another in assemblages, rather than thinking theologically in terms of world issuing from some sort of One or God principle. In Lacanian terms it is the difference between a feminine logic of the not-all, versus a masculine logic of the unobtainable one.
If onticology has something to offer at the level of object-oriented practice and epistemology, I think it is the hypothesis that objects act or are encountered in their doing. In other words, knowing for onticology, is not passively mirroring, it is not based on the armchair gaze of the masculine subject looking at pornography (rendering the entire world a pornographic spectacle for the gaze). No, knowledge is a product of doing and is a discovery of doings. We know things, we discover them, through their acts, not their properties in states of equilibrium. And if we wish to discover the powers of objects we have to act on these objects to see what they do in these conditions. It is through provoking objects to discover what properties flash forth that we discover their powers. And this entails getting out of one’s chair, surrendering the pornographic gaze or scopophilia, and mucking about with the world to find out what bodies are capable of doing.