transversalRemarking on my post on values and normativity entitled “Co(m)-plications“, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliterations writes:

This is a tantalizing vision. I, for one, am totally tantalized. The concept of emergence and the insights of neuroscience (and other parts of complexity theory and cognitive science too) provide some powerful support and explanatory power for OOO’s placement of the human within the realm of the real. And to this point, these relative scientific latecomers have not been coerced into the service of a serious, wide-ranging ontology.

So I’m all happy and cheerful and so forth. Then I read a quote like this (from Larval Subjects), and I begin to wonder if my philosophical sky is really so cloudless:

I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

I emphasize the “not” there, because that’s where I did a little double-take. Is that right? Isn’t OOO a call for scientistic naturalism? I mean, non-scientific descriptions and explanations are super cool and all that, but we’re talking ontology here! If we’re going to embed and embody the human in the world, what else are we going to use besides the methodology that’s all along been all about objects?

I think my friend’s remarks here are symptomatic of what first comes to the mind of many when we hear words like “ontology”, “realism”, and “objects”. “If”, the train of thought runs, “we are advocating an object-oriented ontology and a realism, this entails that such an ontology is not a subject-oriented ontology. Therefore object-oriented ontology must be interested in showing how the really real world is the result of neurons, atoms, stars, mountains, and so on.” From this point of view, objects are treated as physical or natural objects and are contrasted with subjectivity and culture. The thesis here would be that subjectivity and culture are epiphenomena of these natural objects.

This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. The realism of OOO is not one more move in the battle between realism and idealism where one is asked to choose either realism and advocate the position that really real objects are physical and natural objects and everything else is epiphenomena of these objects or where one is forced to advocate some variant of idealism that holds that all objects are products of mind or culture and that we can never know what things-in-themselves might be independent of mind or culture. Rather, as Ian Bogost notes in his brief response to Asher, OOO places all objects on equal ontological footing. As I articulate it, OOO draws a transversal line across the entire distinction between subject and object, culture and nature, placing the two orders that characterize the discourse of modernity on a single ontological plane.

read on!

In geometry a transversal line is a line that intersects two or more other lines at different points. In the case of OOO, the two lines our third line intersects are the lines of nature and culture, object and subject. The third line that intersects these two lines is that of ontology. Already, in this formulation, I think we can see how OOO differs from the discourse of modernity. In the discourse of modernity there is not a third line known as ontology intersecting two lines known as nature or culture. Rather, the raging debate that characterizes the discourse of modernity is instead that of a Venn diagram. We can represent the four types of relations for a two term Venn diagram as follows:

No S are P:


All S are P:


Some S are not P:


Some S are P:

imageSJ7 Let us focus on judgments of the form “All S are P”. The discourse of modernity is occupied with the question of whether ontology or being falls on the side of nature or culture, object or mind. Thus, if you are a scientific naturalist, your judgment has the form “All culture/mind/subject is nature.” This thesis is the thesis that cultural formation and subjects are reducible to materialistic principles, be they neurons or atoms. By contrast, if one is some variant of humanist or idealist, the proposition takes the form “All nature is culture/mind/subject”. Here the thesis is slightly more nuanced. With notable exceptions like Berkeley’s subjective idealism that claims that esse est percepi or that being is perception, or Hegel’s absolute identity that purports to establish the identity of substance and subject, the humanist decision is epistemological, not ontological. In other words, when the idealist of whatever stripe claims that “All nature is culture/mind/subject”, he is generally not claiming that mind, culture, or subject create the world in the manner that God generates the world from his thought. Rather, the idealist is making the claim that the world of natural objects is only ever the world as we represent it, such that we can know nothing of the world as it might be independent of our representations. What we call world is our representation. Consequently, while idealism nuances itself with a retreat into epistemology in its non-Hegelian and non-Berkeleyian forms, this retreat into epistemology nonetheless redeems ontology in the sense that it asserts that for all intents and purposes our representations are the most we can ever say about being. In other words, statements made by idealists that seem to straightforwardly be about objects always contain an implicit quasi-codicil such that all such statements are for us.

latourWhile scientific naturalism and idealisms are heatedly engaged in a polemic as to whether all culture/mind/subjects are nature or whether all nature is culture/mind/subjects, the discourse of modernity is nonetheless agreed at the level of the universal negative proposition at the heart of their respective ontology. Thus, the scientific naturalist will happily proclaim that “No nature is culture” and the idealist will happily proclaim that “No culture is nature”. That is, as analyzed by Latour, the key move of modernity is a purification of the two domains of nature and culture, such that the two are to be rigorously separated and held apart at pains of social catastrophe, disaster, superstition, and horror. The great sin of pre-modernity, claims both the scientific naturalist and the idealist is to confuse the two domains of nature and culture, object and subject. Thus, the scientific naturalist believes that social progress will result from the progressive naturalization of the world. “No longer”, she says, “will we confuse the appearance of a comet with cultural epiphenomena like superstition that see it as a bad omen or sign! Through our understanding of physics, brains, chemistry, etc., etc., etc., we will finally free ourselves of these primitive confusions.” Likewise, the idealist sees the cardinal sin of pre-modernity as the confusion of properly cultural phenomena with “natural” phenomena. “No longer”, she says, “will we see laws and society as natural orders as in the case of the Great Chain of Being, but rather we must carefully keep nature and culture separate such that we see that it is we that produce nature, laws, and society.” As Deleuze puts it in his gorgeous little book on Kant, “the first thing we discover with Kant’s moral philosophy is that it is we who are calling the shots.” The moral law is no longer a natural artifact, but is rather something that the subject gives to itself in and through its autonomy.

The key point not to be missed with OOO is that the realism of object-oriented ontology is not making a decision within the framework of this schema or partition between nature and culture. OOO is not preoccupied with the question of whether being falls on the side of nature or of culture. Rather, in drawing a transversal line across nature and culture, the issue is no longer whether being falls into the circle of nature and culture, but rather in establishing a flat ontology united around a third line in which both domains (and the OOO theorist need not even speak of incommensurable domains any longer) now equally are. This is an entirely different sorting of the world and of the question of ontology. In the case of my variant of onticology, this transversal line is the ontic principle. If something makes a difference, then it is. To be sure, the object-oriented ontologist refers to all beings as objects, but this should not be confused with the position of scientific naturalism where the only real objects are physical or natural objects. With the scientific naturalist, the object-oriented ontologist is happy to agree that there are brains, atoms, quarks, black holes, hurricanes, and so on. These are all things that have distinct endo-relational structures composed of networks of differences and that make all sorts of differences when they enter into exo-relations with other entities. However, unlike the scientific naturalist, the object-oriented ontologist holds that fictional entities, works of art, signs, Sweden, the United States Constitution, norms, narratives, tables, subjects, etc., etc., etc., are objects as well.

eyelash_miteIf the object-oriented ontologist is committed to a thesis as strange as the idea that a phoneme is an object or that Norway is an object, then this is because the criteria for being an object is not whether or not an entity is physical, but whether or not it makes differences. One might object that this is a tremendous abuse of the word object and what we mean when we refer to existence. “Harry Potter does not exist!” To be sure, there is no physical referent of the character of Harry Potter. However, the fictional character of Harry Potter certainly exists and makes all sorts of differences to all sorts of other objects. It will again be objected that this is an abuse of the term “existence”. At this point, it becomes necessary to press the defender of the thesis that existence is equivalent to being-physical. “What is this quality you refer to as existence? What is it for something to exist?” “Well Sir, to exist is to be physical!” “And”, the onticologist asks in good Platonic fashion seeking to get at the hidden presuppositions already implicit in the thesis, “what does it mean to be physical?” All sorts of answers will be given to this question, but ultimately at the end of the day, at the completion of the dialogue, it will be found that what the scientific naturalist was claiming all along is that to exist is to make differences. That which exists is that which is capable of producing differences. But if this is the case, then it follows that we should practice an egalitarianism of difference, thereby arriving at a flat ontology. If to exist is to be capable of making differences, then whatever makes a difference is. This egalitarianism or ontological difference is not the thesis that all beings equally make differences, that they are all equally important (a normative judgment), that all differences are desirable or valuable (another normative judgment), but simply that regardless of the degree to which something makes a difference, if a difference is made then that thing is. The smallest fluctuation in temperature is still a temperature and still a difference in temperature. Likewise, the smallest difference is still a difference and therefore something that is. The microscopic mite or demodex that dwells in my eyelash makes very little difference to that lash or my body, but nonetheless makes differences and therefore is.