Over at Machinology Jussi Parikka has a nice post up raising some questions about OOO. Here my remarks will repeat some of the points that Paul Caplin raises here which is also well worth the read. Jussi writes:
I wonder if there is a problem with the notion of object in the sense that it still implies paradoxically quite a correlationist, or lets say, human-centred view to the world; is not the talk of “object” something that summons an image of perceptible, clearly lined, even stable entity – something that to human eyes could be thought of as the normal mode of perception. We see objects in the world. Humans, benches, buses, cats, trashcans, gloves, computers, images, and so forth. But what would a cat, bench, bus, trashcan, or a computer “see”, or sense?
I think there are two responses to this point, the first ontological and the second socio-political. Regarding the ontological, it simply is not the case that object-oriented ontology privileges mid-lined objects about the size of aardvarks, boulders, spatulas, etc. These are objects, but objects come at a variety of different levels of scale. At the heart of my own work are considerations of mereology or relations between parts and wholes. Objects are always wholes, but they are wholes that are composed of other objects that are, in their turn, independent objects in their own right. Cats are no less objects that cells and atoms, and cells and atoms are no less objects than aardvarks. Likewise, social systems like cities and markets, and large objects like galaxies are no less independent objects than persons. Clearly these large and small scale objects are neither stable nor easily perceptible. Yet within an OOO framework they count as objects every bit as much as spoons. In my view, these relations between parts and wholes raise all sorts of analytic questions that are almost completely unaddressed in critical theory.
One standard criticism of OOO is that it is a form of neoliberalism because just as neoliberalism focuses on individual persons in isolation from social relations, OOO argues that the universe is composed entirely of individual objects and their relations. Yet this forgets that for OOO a market is every bit as much an object as a person. In Harman’s language, neoliberalism in its Thatcherian thesis that “society does not exist, only individuals and families exist”, is a form of undermining. Undermining is something that takes place whenever it is argued that objects can be erased or completely reduced to something more basic. For example, the underminer says that brain itself is not a distinct object, but that it is just its neurons, ie., it doesn’t recognize that there’s a way in which the whole (brain) composed of these parts (neurons, synapses, etc), has distinct properties and powers that can’t be found in any of the parts alone. The Thatcherian neoliberal undermines social systems by saying they are just shorthand for individual actions of agents (Latour is guilty of this as well), rather than entities in their own right. Yet for OOO a market is a distinct individual or object in its own right, over and above the individual persons that are entangled in that market and, as a consequence, just as my body is entangled with the planet Earth such that Earth affects my weight through its gravitational pull, persons find themselves entangled in behemoth, leviathan objects like markets that affect them in all sorts of ways. Yet clearly a market is not something that is stable nor that we can perceive. Indeed, to treat markets as individual entities in their own right is to argue that there are unheard of and monstrous animals that exist in the world that we scarcely discern.
Shifting from the ontological to the socio-political, my way to object-oriented ontology occurred for reasons very similar to those described by Caplan:
One of the things that has attracted me to OOP is precisely this decentering of the human or perhaps more correctly the renaming of the human as object.
There came a point in my own research where I realized that all of my research revolved around questions of what other things are for humans. In other words, I was always investigating how humans name things, perceive things, cognize things, etc.; in short, how humans construct things. For me the things of the world were nothing but vehicles or carriers of human meanings and intentions. That is, they were carriers of signifiers, differentiated by signifiers, and therefore were nothing but mirrors of us.
Now don’t get me wrong. I still think that there’s much to more traditional semiotico-social constructivisms (I think that chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects provides all the resources one needs for self-reflexive, social constructivist analysis, and so I believe myself to have integrated the important lessons of phenomenology, critical theory, and the semiotic/linguistic/rhetorical turn). The point is not that this style of analysis is wrong. As Whitehead says, there’s truth in all positions; their principle failing lies in overstatement. And this is the problem with the constructivist turn: overstatement. The various constructivisms we have today render other crucial features of our social and political world completely invisible. How can I theorize climate change and its very real impact if I treat everything as a signifier? How can I think the agency and nature of technology and media if I treat everything as resulting from signs? Do I really wish to claim that the reason people remain often in such desperate circumstances and often allow oppressive regimes to continue is just the result of mistaken beliefs, being ideologically duped, etc., and that it has nothing to do with material infrastructures, access to things, time to do things differently, etc? OOO, through its decentering of the human, has allowed me to think the agency of entities other than humans without immediately reducing them to vehicles or carriers of human intentions. I don’t think we can adequately pose the social and political questions we wish to pose without making this move.
Related to this, what if the world is not an object? What if the non-humans it wants to rescue are not (always) something we could with good conscience call objects?… For instance, in mediatic contexts, what if we need to account for the non-object based realities of such media technological realities as electromagnetism – that hardly could intuitively be called an object.
I agree that electro-magnetism isn’t an object, but it is an effect of objects. Electro-magnetism is a power of certain types of fundamental particles.
Some people are enthusiastic because object oriented philosophy seems at last to offer a philosophical way of treating the non-human (animals, technology, etc.) on an equal footing to the human. Agencies are extended to a whole lot of entities. But such claims, whether intentionally or not, forget that there is a whole long history of such thought; the most often forgotten is the radical feminist materialism of figures such as Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz; this goes nowadays often by the name of new materialism.
I agree, this is one of the major reasons that we invited Elizabeth Grosz to be on O-Zone’s editorial board. We recognized that there are fruitful points of overlap among these different intellectual trajectories and that they should be brought into dialogue with one another. I am not sure why this has to be seen as an exclusionary thing or an exclusive disjunction: either feminist new materialisms or OOO. Just as Harman and I have arrived at similar positions– though with notable differences –from very different premises and theoretical background (my background is Deleuze, systems theory, cybernetics, Lacan, autopoietic theory, and developmental systems theory, and his is Heidegger, phenomenology, Aristotle, Suarez, Zubiri, etc), I take it as a positive sign that the new materialists have arrived at similar positions independent of us. This entails both that we’re on to something and that I have much to learn from these thinkers. In Latourian terms, I take it that this indicates an opportunity to enhance the intensity or strength of the existence of this thing through alliances and cross-fertilizations.
Just a thought: The real is not the same thing as matter. Matter is not always about objects. In an interview, Grosz has briefly hinted that she is not that interested in the concept/category of the real, because that still concerns more closely epistemology. Instead, what concerns her is matter.
Bennett makes similar points and I share similar concerns. In my more recent work I’ve tended to refer to myself as a materialist rather than a realist because I wish to emphasize the ontological over the epistemological. There’s a debate between Harman and I on this point. He’s not a big fan of materialism, I am.
Is object oriented philosophy more akin to epistemology, an operationalization of the world into modular units through which we can question human superiority– instead of it being an ontology? If we want to pay more philosophical respect to the world of non-humans – chemicals, soil, minerals, atmospheric currents and such – should we not read more of scientific research that constantly is the one who talks of such worlds, and actually offers insights into different worlds of durations and stabilities from that of the human? Don’t get me wrong – I might be a naïve observer but not that naïve: of course I know that a lot of sciences are not able to be that self-reflexive, and constantly smuggle in a huge amount of conceptual and other material that makes their epistemology infected with the human/the social, and that science is not a neutral cold gaze that just registers the world. I guess I am just interested in the world – an empiricism, transcendental, radical.
I don’t think OOO can be reduced to an epistemology, though I do think it has a great deal to say about epistemology. I wholeheartedly agree that theorists in the humanities need to pay more attention to the sciences. This is why, for example, I draw so much on the sciences and biology in particular. But what is the point then? Why not just go to the sciences and ignore all this theory stuff? As Whitehead observes, theories are “lures for feeling”. By that I take it that he means that they pull certain elements of the world into relief while plunging others into obscurity. As Luhmann would say, there is no theory that does not have its blind spots. Theories are therefore like windows or frames surrounding a painting that direct us to the world in a particular way. A theory cannot itself tell us what is out there in the world (the “empirical” that Jussi refers to), but they do nonetheless lure us to attend to certain dimensions of the world. It’s the height of naivete to suggest that we can just go and look at the world and find anything significant there. No, we always require some sort of frame, some sort of lure, that guides us to looking at the right sorts of things and asking the right sort of questions. OOO, I think, is a reframing of the humanities that targets the unconscious window or frame that has dominated inquiry over the last century and that opens new paths of inquiry as a result. Like all other frames it will encounter its limit and blind spots eventually, but that encounter cannot take place without first traversing the frame.