My article on the pandemic in the journal Identities can be found here.

I’ve been having a lengthy discussion with a very good friend about normativity and how we go about determining values. One of the things that keeps coming up is the question of what ethical implications my version of object-oriented ontology. In particular, they ask whether my flat ontology is making the claim that all things are equally valuable or have equal worth. This question isn’t unique to my friend. It’s something that has come up since I first proposed flat ontology years ago. When I first started receiving this question I was completely caught off guard. Flat ontology is a thesis about what is and how things are, not a thesis about values and worth. It is not making the claim that a flea is as valuable as a human being. It is the thesis that fleas are real and so are human beings. Given the curious tendency of people to convert ontological claims into value claims, I’ve come to suspect that there’s some feature of our psychology that leads us to do this. I’m not sure why, but I encounter it so frequently that I find it difficult to escape this conclusion.
None of this is to say that I don’t think there aren’t political and ethical implications of my work, just not how one might think. When I reflect on my articles, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography, I think the entire aim of my work is to help people ask better questions. I’ve said this for years, but now that I think about it, I’ve seldom explained what I mean by a better question. There’s a very real sense in which my work isn’t aimed at philosophers. I get very impatient with debates in philosophy about who interpreted a philosopher better, or whether we should be Kantians or Hegelians or speculative realists, or whether Heidegger got it right or Badiou got it right. These all have merit and value, but they’re not what I’m after.
If I were to sum up the spirit of my work, I would say that it is a philosophy of design. When I say I want my work to help people to ask better questions, I’m talking about better questions with respect to the world we live in and how it is put together. I see design problems everywhere and I see a lot of cruelty in our world because we don’t reflect on design and how it enhances or detracts from our lives. Take education reform. A feature of both Bush and Obama’s education reform was to link federal funding of schools to student performance. The idea was that if a school is performing poorly we should withdraw funding to get the teachers and the school to get their act together. I think this is a terrible design solution. The idea is that the schools are failing because teachers aren’t doing their job (notice also that at a certain point we began demanding teachers get more training– at least a master’s degree –so they would be competent at their jobs). These sorts of design solutions are profoundly superficial in their analysis of the problem.
read on!


There’s a model of philosophical rigor that denounces all analogies, metaphors, and examples.  It is an ancient tradition.  Plato, of course, denounces the use of examples tirelessly throughout his writings.  “I did not ask you for an example of piety, Euthyphro, but to articulate what piety itself is or what is common to all instances of piety!”  In the Republic, dianoia– mathematical reasoning –is not yet the highest form of knowledge because it relies on writing and the use of diagrams.  The symbols I use in my notation can get in the way of recognizing relationships as in the case of the near impossibility of doing even the simplest arithmetic using Roman numerals, and the diagrams I use to help me to think of a conic section or a triangle can lead me astray insofar as no matter how hard I try I can’t draw triangleness, only a triangle.  Writing, images, and examples in all of their forms, this tradition claims, are doomed to lead us astray.  Thus, much later in the Science of Logic, Hegel will attempt a pure logic that eschews any examples, metaphors, or analogies altogether.  These will be deemed beneath the dignity of the concept.

While I understand these arguments and the dangers of writing, the image, the example, the metaphor, and the analogy, I nonetheless believe that we will never do better than examples, metaphors, and analogies.  The attempt to purify thought, to produce pure thought, by chasing away all examples, metaphors, and analogies is, in my view, despite appearances to the contrary, a lack of rigor.  Lurking somewhere in the thought, as formal and free of examples as it might appear, is always a privileged example that governs ones inquiry, a master metaphor or analogy.  Yet in that writing that strives for pure formalism, the privileged example, master metaphor, and analogy are hidden from view…  They hidden from both the author and the reader alike.  As a result, they govern and structure their thought like a gravitational attractor without author or reader realizing it.  Rigorous thought involves taking responsibility for our examples, metaphors, and analogies so as to explore how they might influence our thinking while also recognizing that there is no escaping them…  Even in mathematics.

Man meets Milky WayIn Speculative Grace, Adam Miller distinguishes science and religion on the basis of two sorts of vision.  On the one hand, Miller says, science cultivates farsightedness.  Perhaps we could say that science is the exploration of something like Morton’s hyperobjects or Deleuze and Bergson’s durations inferior and superior to our own.  Science relates us to nearly unimaginable spaces and times at the level of the vastly small and the overwhelmingly large.  In the theory of evolution we are linked to breathtaking scales of time, linking species and geographical processes that have unfolded over the course of millions and billions of years.  Like the theory of evolution, astronomy and physics link us to sublime distances and ages we can barely conceive.  We learn that it takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach us (compare this to our experience of the a room being illuminated when we flip a switch), or that it takes 230 million years for our sun to orbit the Milky Way, our how beings like our solar system are formed through a process of accretion out of the detritus of ancient stars that spread their matter throughout the universe in unimaginably violent supernovas.  In quantum physics we learn of the strange probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles that are both waves and particles and that seem to violate the speed of light through phenomena of quantum entanglement.  And, of course, environmental science reveals the vast and hyper-complex world of climate change and how our local actions are related to the the behavior of systems at scales incredibly difficult for us to think and conceptualize.  If science is farsighted, then this is because it cultivates a relationship to distance at the smallest and largest scales of time and space, showing us how we are deeply enmeshed and entangled in these things that seem so remote from our day to day experience.

Religion, according to Miller and by contrast, is about developing nearsightedness.  Where science under his reading is about developing a relation to distance, religion is about developing proximity.  As Miller puts it,

Religion corrects for our farsightedness.  It addresses the invisibility of objects that are commonly too familiar, too available, too immanent to be seen.  To this end, it intentionally cultivates nearsightedness.  Religion practices myopia in order to bring both work and suffering into focus as grace.  Redemption turns on this revelation.  (Speculative Grace, 143)

I am not certain that I share Miller’s view that this is what is unique to religion, but conceptually I like what he is doing here.  Within Miller’s framework, all of the ordinary concepts of Christianity are transformed.  Ordinarily we think of religion, and Christianity in particular, as a yearning for transcendence that aims at something out of this world.  Consider, for example, Hägglund’s critique of religion in his magnificent book, This Life.  In Miller’s account, by contrast– and don’t worry readers, I haven’t suddenly become religious –religion centers us directly in this world and the things of this world.  For Miller– and again I don’t think this need be unique to religion –religion aims not at transcendence, the beyond, a super-empirical world, but rather at immanence, this world, those things that are nearest to us.

Take the traditional concept of grace.  According to the Wikipedia entry on grace in Christianity,

grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”. It is not a created substance of any kind. “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

Under this model, grace descends upon us from a verticality.  We exist in a state of sin from which we cannot escape.  Grace is the clemency that God grants us, the undeserved gift, that rescues us from this sin.

Nothing could be further from Miller’s concept of grace.  Miller wants to do for the concept of grace, what Darwin did for our conception of species.  Where pre-Darwinian accounts of species held that the world was not enough, but rather that species are created by God and are modeled after the ideas in his divine intellect, Darwin’s declaration under Miller’s reading, was that the world is enough.  Darwin proceeded to show how we can give an account of the genesis of species from within the world without recourse to any transcendent supplements.  Such is the theory of evolution.  It is premised on immanence, rather than transcendence.

read on!


Pi3_(1)_1050_591_81_s_c1With horror I didn’t realize what had come out of my mouth until after I said it.  Yesterday a student came up to me after class, breathlessly talking about how they just couldn’t understand how Miller’s experimental metaphysics and method could work.  “Professor Bryant, I just don’t understand and I don’t know what my problem is?”  What sections should I be focusing on to figure this out?  Why am I having this problem understanding this?”

And then it happened.  I said it before I realized what I was saying.  “I think your problem is that you need more confidence!”  This student has been with me for three semesters and they’re brilliant.  Their eyes widened and fluttered with surprise.  I continued.  “Maybe the problem isn’t with you.  Maybe it’s not that you’re failing to understand.  Maybe you understand perfectly well what is in the book.  Maybe the problem is with the book.  Rather than this being a failure of your understanding, a deficiency on your part, maybe you’re doing philosophy now.  Maybe you’re recognizing something that’s inadequate in the text, that isn’t satisfactory, that just doesn’t work and that something else is needed.”  The student responded, “no, I just don’t think I understand.”

universityI don’t think there are enough moments like this in the classroom.  There is a way of teaching that can be described as paranoid.  There is an impulse in many of us to always be advocates of the texts we are teaching (and that’s not a bad thing!).  When a student raises a question about a thinker or a text, when they express confusion, our impulse is to explain and show how the text and thinker has an answer.  Often that’s the appropriate move as the student, after all, is just learning these texts and is only being exposed to a limited selection of the thinker’s work.  This pedagogical approach can be paranoid in that it fills in the gaps and presents the author and text as if they are invincible.  We teach as if, to quote Lacan, “the big Other exists”.  The problem with proceeding in this way is that we are creating a certain subjectivity in our students.  After years of this sort of training in philosophy, literature, and cultural studies courses the student becomes convinced that their questions are the result of a failure to understand, their own insufficiency, rather than an insufficiency of the text.  We Oedipalize our subjects.  In Lacan’s dialectic of alienation and separation, they remain at the level of alienation in the big Other, believing that the big Other is without antagonisms, lack, incompleteness, and insufficiency– Deleuze and Lacan can never be wrong, and certainly not Hegel! –and they are therefore never able to move on to separation so that they might become subjects themselves.  Such is the lesson of Lacan’s university discourse.   The product of that discourse is an alienated subject, a subject trapped in the web of “knowledge” and a master-signifier, whether it be a figure (Lacan, Hegel, Deleuze, Spinoza, Kant, etc.) that is treated as the repository of complete knowledge such that they can never be wrong.  A non-paranoid pedagogy would refuse the move of treating the text and figure as if it is always right, as if any question posed to the text is the result of a failure to understand.

Culture_Matrix_Code_corridorIn place of the conspiracy theories of classical metaphysics, Adam Miller, following Latour, proposes an experimental metaphysics.  According to Miller, what is the cardinal sin of classical metaphysics?  On the one hand, it is reductive.  When we are in the grips of a theory, we believe we have mastered the phenomena.  Our metaphysics is based on a distinction between appearance and reality, where appearances are the buzzing confusion of all things that exist in the world and reality is the finite set of principles or laws that both explain those phenomena and that are the grounds of the phenomena.  Here I cannot resist a hackneyed reference to The Matrix.  What is it that distinguishes Neo from everyone else?  Unlike the rest of us that see only appearances– the steak that we are eating, the clothing we are wearing, the car we’re driving in, other people, etc –Neo sees the reality that governs the appearances.  He sees the code that governs appearances.  Neo is the Platonic hero par excellence.  Where everyone else sees shadows on the cave wall taking them to be true reality, Neo has escaped the cave, seen the true reality, and now knows the combinatorial laws that govern all the appearances.  It is this that allows him to perform such extraordinary feats, for like the scientist that has unlocked the secrets of nature, he can manipulate that code to his advantage.

main-qimg-0d8cd712304a3f11bd098c637db0247fThis is the fantasy of classical metaphysics and is what Miller refers to as a conspiracy theory.  The classical metaphysician believes he has unliked the code that governs the appearances and, for this reason, no longer has to attend to the appearances.  Alfred Korzybski famously said “the map is not the territory”.  The classical metaphysician is like a person who gets a map and thinks that because they have a map they have mastered the territory; so much so that they don’t have to consult the territory at all.  In this instance, the map, the model, comes to replace the territory altogether.  The map becomes the reality and the territory itself, such that the territory no longer enters the picture.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons people often find philosophers so frustrating.  We have our models, we have our metaphysics, and we debate back and forth about the finer points of these respective maps, yet the territory doesn’t enter the picture.  The map has become more real than the territory (isn’t this what Lauruelle is diagnosing in his non-philosophy:  the manner in which the philosophy posits its own reality).

It is in this sense that classical metaphysics is reductive:  the map comes to replace the territory such that the territory contributes nothing.  Indeed, the territory comes to be treated as an epiphenomenon.  Consider the following equations:


lemon/combinations of atoms

The latter might be an equation from Lucretian atomism.  That thesis states that the lemon is explained by combinations of atoms, both the shapes of those atoms and how they are combined.  Now, in the Lucretian framework– as much as it pains me to say so, given my deep love of Lucretius –we can ask whether the lemon contributes anything?  Isn’t it the atoms that do all of the work?  Suppose we take a neo-atomist.  Someone says it was the baseball that broke the window.  Our neo-atomist smugly responds that that is a folk metaphysical explanation.  Rather, what really happened is that one combination of atoms interacted with another set of atoms producing a new combination of atoms.  Baseballs and windows contribute nothing.  They are fictions.

read on!


00040921-00004In In Defense of Things Bjørnar Olsen reminds us that the etymology of the term “thing” is  instructive.  As articulated by The Online Etymology Dictionary,

Old English þing “meeting, assembly, council, discussion,” later “entity, being, matter” (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also “act, deed, event, material object, body, being, creature,” from Proto-Germanic *thinga- “assembly” (source also of Old Frisian thing “assembly, council, suit, matter, thing,” Middle Dutch dinc “court-day, suit, plea, concern, affair, thing,” Dutch ding “thing,” Old High German ding “public assembly for judgment and business, lawsuit,” German Ding “affair, matter, thing,” Old Norse þing “public assembly”). The Germanic word is perhaps literally “appointed time,” from a PIE *tenk- (1), from root *ten- “stretch,” perhaps on notion of “stretch of time for a meeting or assembly.”

How do we get from þing as meeting, assembly, council, or discussion to the idea of a thing as an entity?  What is the chain of associations here?  As Harman will say in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “we have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects”, as “every object is both a substance and a complex of relations” (83).  A thing is an assembly, a meeting of things, a complex of things.  When confronted with Kant’s second antinomy and the choice between the thesis:

Every composite substance in the world is made up of simple parts, and nothing anywhere exists save the simple or what is composed of the simple.

And the anti-thesis:

No composite thing in the world is made up of simple parts, and nowhere exists in the world anything simple.

Object-oriented ontology resolutely sides with the anti-thesis.  It begins with the speculative thesis that there are no simple or atomic units.  While I do not share Graham’s antipathy towards materialism insofar as I don’t think this must be the commitment of materialism, I think this commitment is at the heart of his hostility to materialisms.  If I’ve understand Harman correctly, he sees materialism as committed to the thesis of Kant’s second antinomy.  It is committed to the thesis that there are ultimate units, simple parts, that are the ultimate constituents of being.

read on!