Drawing on Alfred North Whitehead, Didier Debaise made an interesting observation about the nature of propositions in his keynote at the Philosopher’s Rally (which was an amazing success and experience). While I do not share Debaise’s “subject-oriented ontology” where everything becomes a subject (rocks, planets, mantis shrimps, etc), I strongly feel that our difference is largely rhetorical rather than philosophical. I believe that there’s a strategic value to referring to all entities– including humans –as objects at our historical juncture, while he believes there’s a strategic gesture in referring to them all as subjects. In the end, however, we’re both making the claim that all entities are monads that integrate their world in their own peculiar and unique way. Our real difference lies elsewhere. He believes that every monad/subject/object expresses the entirety of the world, while I reject the thesis that every entity is related to every other entity. I think there’s a great danger in holding that things ontologically come pre-related. On the one hand, I think this view is just mistaken ontologically. As a materialist I take it as “axiomatic” that relations can be forged no faster than the speed of light. Indeed, in most cases relations and interactions don’t even move at this speed. Look into the history, for example, of constructing the great trans-Atlantic cables and all the constraints that emerged with respect to how quickly information could be transferred across these cables. Every entity, I believe, has it’s own openness to the duration of entities both above and below the speed of its own duration, such that many of these other durations cannot even be registered at all. The point is that relations must be forged. They aren’t given.
Politically, many of our problems revolve around non-relation or the fact that no relations are present between two or more regimes. In my own thought I distinguish between dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects (and perhaps gaseous objects as well, I’m still thinking on this). A dark object is an object so thoroughly unrelated that it is there in a situation but does not manifest itself at all in the situation. For example, my living room, where I’m now typing, might be filled with all sorts of dark objects that go completely unregistered in this situation. Perhaps me or my daughter will happen to perturb them in just the right way and they’ll suddenly manifest, pinning us to the wall or causing us to be pushed out the window. A dim object is an object that minimally manifests itself in a situation but only very dimly and in a marginally related way. Immigrants, the homeless, leftists (in the States), women at academic philosophy conferences, etc., are all examples of dim objects. They are there, they are manifest, but only dimly. Their voices go unheard with respect to majoritarian organization and policy. Bright objects would be those entities that strongly manifest themselves in a situation, exercising a strong gravitational pull on other entities. For example, white males and the 1% in the United States are bright objects. Numerically they aren’t majorities, yet they nonetheless organize a plurality of the social relations. The same could be said of certain technologies and foods that organize how we live. Rogue objects, finally, are objects that erupt within situations from without. Hurricane Katrina, the revolutionary, OWS, etc., were rogue objects that suddenly and out of nowhere manifested themselves in a situation, reconfiguring the relations of that situation.
The point is that politics is not so much about relation but non-relation. Hank Oosterling, in his media-ontology– what he nicely calls “radical media()crity” (“city of relations/mediums) –has it right in his focus on relation, but is wrong to ignore that these relations must be forged or engineered (he recognizes this completely, however, at the level of his practice). Like Oosterling, it is above all relations or what happens when things that relate that interest me; not individual entities in isolation. I just always make the caveat that things don’t come already related; they must be engineered, built, constructed. In this regard, leftist politics is always an engineering of relations through rogue objects for dim objects. It strives to more thoroughly relate the unrelated, the dim. By contrast, rightwing politics is a practice that strives to engineer relations that make bright objects brighter and to ensure that dim objects remain dim or minimally manifest.
Back to Debaise’s remarks on propositions. Following Whitehead, Debaise emphasizes that truth-functionality and entailment are not enough to capture the nature of propositions. In addition to this, we need a logic of events capable of capturing– what I would call, in my language or terminology –the situatedness of propositions in regimes of attraction. In other words, propositions resonate in very different ways depending on differences in the regime of attraction in which they occur. He gives the nice example of the proposition “Crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate this point. When I articulate this proposition and when Caesar articulates this proposition, logically the propositions are identical. The truth-value of the propositions “Didier crosses the Rubicon” and Caesar crosses the Rubicon are the same. But at the level of events, these propositions are quite different. When Didier crosses the Rubicon, nothing really happens beyond his own experience of crossing the Rubicon. By contrast, when Caesar crosses the Rubicon he himself undergoes an incorporeal transformation making him either a criminal general or emperor, and Rome undergoes an incorporeal transformation as well, shifting from being a republic to an imperial state. Truth-functionally and at the level of logic, the two propositions are the same, but at the level of events the entailments and logic are quite different.
My aim here is not to reject the formalisms of logic. Rather, the point is to indicate that formalism is not enough to account for the richness of worlds or logoi. The danger that resides in approaching situations purely in terms of truth-functional logic and structures of entailment is that it risks keeping dim objects dim and bright objects bright by failing to attend to the networks of relation and non-relation that organize the logoi of these situations. What we need is a propositional language rich enough to account for the richness of situations and the structure of events possible in these situations.
Over at Love of All Wisdom Amod has an interesting post up on OOO and Asian thought. I wanted to zero in on this particular passage. Amod writes:
The first comparison that came to my mind when I read about this was one that I doubt Speculative Realists would find flattering: Ayn Rand. Rand blames Kant for most of the perceived evils of contemporary society, including even its supposed irrationalism, going so far as to call the austere Prussian “the first hippie in history.” Why? Because, in a word, of Kant’s correlationism! What most irritated Rand about Kant was the turn toward the subjective, away from the objective facts of the world; from here, she thought, it was a short slide into Communism, sacrificing human beings’ rational faculties. The merits of Rand’s interpretation of Kant and of post-Kantian intellectual history are dubious; nevertheless it intrigues me that in some respect she has found an unlikely bedfellow in the Speculative Realists.
I can’t speak for all the speculative realists as we’re a diverse group, but I do think I’m in a position to speak generalize about the object-oriented ontologist wing of the SR camp. It seems to me that few things could be further apart than Rand’s “objectivism” and OOO. On the one hand, Rand’s objectivism is not genuinely a variant of object-oriented thought but is instead a continuation of the Biblical narrative of the centrality and primacy of man with respect to all other beings. Like Adam and his dominion over all other creatures in the Garden, Rand emphasizes the dominion of man over the earth. This is also why Rand refers to her ethical thought as an egoism, and it is certainly a humanism to boot. By contrast, far from celebrating the centrality of the human, OOO speaks to how humans are amongst beings, no higher or lower than other beings. On the other hand, when Rand speaks of “objectivity” what she is emphasizing is the epistemological thesis of the identity of concept and object. For Rand objects are passive matters to be dominated for man’s ends (and I’m using gender marked language intentionally here), whereas OOO emphasizes 1) that objects are actants in their own right and not simply passive matters awaiting imprint from men, nor screens for human concepts. Additionally, where Rand repeats Bacon’s fantasy of dominating mother nature for human ends, OOO emphasizes the perpetual withdrawal of objects, which is, somewhat, equivalent to Adorno’s thesis of the non-identity of concept and object. OOO would make Rand twitch.
I think Amod’s post reflects the connotations of the term “object-oriented”. Upon hearing this term the hasty reader might immediately conclude that “object-oriented” signifies the opposition of being “subject-oriented”, such that we are to be “objective” or “scientific”, as opposed to examining the human element. This thesis seems to be confirmed when Amod goes on to write that OOO wants us to be “less Indian and more Chinese”:
A while ago I noted that South Asian and East Asian thought are in many respects further from each other than they are from the West, and I’d like to expand on the point in the context of Speculative Realism. A central concern, possibly the central concern, of Indian (or more generally South Asian) thought has been the psychology of the human subject. One begins with the suffering subject, already conceived in some sense as separate from the world, and then that subject tries to detach even further from the world. The Yoga Sūtras and the Jainism of the Tattvārtha Sūtra take us even further than Descartes: we are trying to become pure subjectivity. Even Pali Buddhism, focused on the subject’s unreality, nevertheless focuses its attention on the inner subjective world. Reality in the Pali suttas is composed of five “aggregates”; only one of these (rūpa, matter or form) is physical, while the other four are all primarily within the mind. I’m not sure that this all is correlationist per se, but it is anthropocentric and privileges the subject in ways the Speculative Realists seem to oppose.
Turn to China, on the other hand, and one finds a philosophy concerned above all with the outer world, one that often speaks of the exterior world in interior terms. The closest word classical Chinese has for “emotion” is qing, which has more of a sense of “disposition”: one’s emotions are imagined in an almost behaviourist way, based on the way that they predispose one to react in the outer world. I say “almost” behaviourist because there’s some dispute about how much interiority one finds in the work of thinkers like Confucius: Ted Slingerland has argued there is a little, while Herbert Fingarette has argued there is none at all. (On Fingarette’s account Confucius begins to seem an eliminative materialist like Paul and Patricia Churchland; and at least according to the “Pathfinder” list of links I found above, the Speculative Realists are quite sympathetic to eliminative materialism and its attack on subjectivity.)
Yes and no. Remember that for OOO there aren’t two categories or domains of being: the domain of the subject and the domain of the object. Rather, for OOO there’s only one species of being: objects. The consequence that follows from this is that humans are objects too. As a result, humans can’t be excluded from ontological questions. They are every bit as interesting to the object-oriented ontologist as the relationship between, to use Harman’s favorite example, the relation between cotton and a flame. Consequently, the battle cry of OOO is not “eradicate subjectivity!”. Rather it’s quite different. The battle cry of OOO is “don’t reduce objects to subjectivity!” What OOO objects to is not the thesis that when humans relate to objects they color it with their subjectivity in all sorts of ways. This is one of the reasons that OOO is so sanguine about correlationist critiques of realism. It’s not that we think that what these theorists are pointing out is outright false (as Whitehead and Leibniz liked to point out, there’s truth in every philosophy and what philosophies suffer from generally is not falsehood or bad argument but overstatement), rather it’s that OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology.
What OOO objects to is the fetishistic privileging of human-object relations in all matters metaphysical and the claim that objects are nothing but appearances, as Kant put it, for humans. However, were there a cage fight between Kant and Rand (and no doubt Rand would win as she’s the “real man” of the two), the OOO theorist would be rooting on the side of Kant because the OOO theorist supports, as a matter of course, that whenever two objects enter into a relation with one another they distort one another. Kant is closer to the truth as OOO understands it than Rand on this matter because at least Kant understood how relations between human objects and nonhuman objects led to withdrawal, whereas Rand does not understand this and reduces all objects to mere passive means. The gripe with Kant is not this thesis, but his refusal to extend this thesis to all objects, such that the difference between a human relating to an object and a flame relating to cotton is a difference in degree not a difference in kind. I believe Amod’s post is a testament to how deeply the connotations of words (like “object”) and certain oppositions (subject-object) are embedded in our metaphysical unconscious.