In response to my recent post where I offhandedly remark that object-oriented ontology does not advocate a representationalist epistemology or a correspondence theory of truth, Jim expresses some worries:

Representationalism, crudely construed, is the thesis that we can represent the world as it is. Thus representationalism is both an epistemological thesis (a thesis about the nature of our knowledge) and a naive realism (the thesis that the world is like the manner in which we perceive it). This is the only way I can understand Vitale’s questions: Vitale seems to be working on the premise that OOO is a representational realism that argues that we can represent objects as they are.

Please help me out here. I am a big fan of OOO, but now I am a bit confused and a little bit worried. I am also very, very frustrated!

Primarily, I’m worried about your rejection of ‘representationalism.’ Maybe I just don’t understand your critique.

If we start saying things like: “We can never really hope to know the world as-it-exists,” then what is the point of doing science? We might as well just stop studying physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc.

Seriously, I am looking for a reason to study these things.

If we can never hope to come to ‘represent’ the world as-it-exists, then what is the point of carefully measuring things–e.g. taking blood samples, core samples, urine samples, etc–and putting all of our observations and measurements into notebooks, etc? What a waste of time!

If we can never hope to understand and represent objects ‘as they are,’ then why should anyone study the (so-called) natural sciences? We might as well just stop pouring money into these silly, naive disciplines. That money would be better spent elsewhere.

I hope I am just misinterpreting your views; but, I thought OOO was different from social constructivism, which is also sceptical about science, and feminist critiques of science, which make it seem as if science is somehow evil, wrong, ‘patriarchal’ and ‘masculinist,’ etc.

Seriously, who wants to study something that is either ‘horribly, horribly evil’ or hopelessly naive?

If we can never hope to represent things as they REALLY exist, then what the hel* are we doing?

I’m in a bit of a hurry to get out of the door right now, so I’ll have to keep my response brief, but a couple of points are in order. My rejection of representation is not a rejection of knowledge. One of the central distinctions in my version of object-oriented ontology is the distinction between the virtual proper being of an object and the local manifestations of an object. The virtual proper being of an object is what is withdrawn and is that which can never be directly touched, encountered, or represented. The local manifestation of an object is the particular manner in which an object actualizes itself in the world in the form of qualities and properties. The point of this distinction is that an object can locally manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the relations it enters into with other objects. However, none of these local manifestations exhausts the virtual proper being of an object.

Local manifestations take place by objects interacting with one another. A rock encounters flowing water in one way when it sits at the bottom of a stream. It encounters water quite a different way when it’s falling from the sky towards that water at hundreds of miles an hour. Right now British Petroleum is discovering that objects behave quite differently when they’re under thousands of feet of water.

When we’re doing science what we’re doing is placing objects or generative mechanisms in particular contexts or relations to other objects to discover how they act or what they do. That is, we’re acting on objects to provoke actions in objects so as to see how objects act under these conditions. And in doing this, we are placing objects in relations. I’ve written about this in my post entitled The Mug Blues.

So here’s the nub of the matter: Objects are independent of their relations and withdrawn from their relations. Knowledge-production always consists of placing objects in relations or acting on them to provoke actions in them. Consequently, what objects are independent of these relations is something we can never know precisely because we only ever encounter objects in relations and objects only ever encounter one another in relations.

Does that entail that knowledge is useless or an illusion? No. It just entails 1) that knowledge is a description of actions within these relational networks, and that 2) other actions can be provoked in objects when placed in different relational networks. Think about cooking. What is the being of garlic? Can you really say? No, all you know of garlic is how it behaves in a variety of different ways when cooked in a variety of different ways and related to a variety of different ingredients.

Jim seems to have a problem with feminist and social constructivist critiques of knowledge. If these critiques are taken to entail that knowledge is illusory or a fabrication, then I quite agree. Unfortunately, because of distinction between the natural and the artificial that haunts the tradition of Western thought, our tendency is to hear the word “construction” as implying “artificial” or “false”, rather than entailing the arduous work of assembling diverse objects together in a formation that manages to stand or persist. However, if feminist epistemology and social constructivism is understood as the careful investigation of networks of relations among objects in the production of local manifestations, then I’m all for these sorts of investigations as I believe they follow directly from my ontology. All manifestation or actuality is local manifestation or actuality. In this connection, I’m quite in agreement with Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge.

The point is not to confuse objects with their local manifestations or actualities. These actualities or local manifestations are produced by objects, but objects always harbor a volcanic excess and the power to surprise when placed in different networks of relations to different objects. When I reject representationalism I am rejecting naive realism’s tendency to equate the being of objects with what is essentially local or a situated manifestation. As a consequence, I am drawing attention to the relations in which an object enters in producing a manifestation and the manner in which we act on objects to produce particular manifestations.

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