Over at An Un-Canny Ontology, my friend Nate writes:

for Levi, even if we scientifically prove that material existence can be decomposed into 6 or so specific particles, such decomposition is in no way exhaustive for all being. For Levi, being is more than just materiality; it is also immateriality, fictional, and symbolic. And in this way, onticology is inclusive, slutty, or promiscuous. It does not discriminate between objects.

This is mostly right. I do discriminate among objects (they come in all sorts of flavors), but I hold that all of these objects are real. There are a wide variety of realisms and it is important to keep this in mind. Platonic realism holds that Forms or universals exist in their own right, and are not just abstractions of mind. This differs from Aristotle’s particularism that holds that only particulars exist and universals are just abstractions. In addition to Plato’s realism and Aristotle’s particularism, you also have materialistic and physicalist variants of realism. Thus the materialist or physicalist will claim that only material things are real. Everything else is to be explained in terms of this fundamental reality.

My realism is a promiscuous realism. I do not wish to claim that fewer things are real, but rather I wish to multiply the number of real things. The more real beings the better as far as I’m concerned. Or as Latour so nicely puts it, we shouldn’t strive to make things less real, but more real. What does he mean by this? This point can be nicely illustrated in terms of the modernist project of critique. In this connection I cannot recommend Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern more emphatically. Yes, sometimes he is thin on argument. Yes, often he is unfair. Nonetheless, he presents, in my view, a compelling critique of modernity. Modernity, as Latour understands it, consists in drawing a strict distinction between nature on the one hand (the physical world) and society on the other hand. The project of modernity is to purify these two domains. Thus, where there is only a single world for the premoderns, where the social and the natural are not clearly distinguished, modernity posits two distinct ontological domains that are never supposed to cross: the ontological domain of nature and the ontological domain of the social.

read on!

A good deal of modernity can be understood as a war between these two domains. Thus you get your eliminative materialists that claim that the really real is the physical, and you get your eliminative idealists that claim that the really real is the social, the mind, the subjective, etc. Both sides duke it out endlessly, one attempting to show how the social, cultural, and the subjective is really based on nature (i.e., reductivism), the other side trying to show how all of the natural objects discussed by the sciences are really constituted by minds, subjects, culture, language, and so on. What both sides have in common, however, is the project of critique. Critique can be thought of as a technique or technology for purifying these two domains.

One strategy of critique is that of naturalization. Take some phenomenon that terrifies the premodern mind, like an earthquake. Not only is the premodern terrified by the earthquake itself, the premodern also sees the earthquake as having ethical and supernatural significance: the gods are punishing us because we have displeased them in some way. For the premodern mind, nature and culture are completely mixed up, so every event immediately has meaning, it is not humans that bestow or project meaning. So how does critique by naturalization take place? In a nutshell, the scientist shows that earthquakes result from the movement of tectonic plates, thereby showing that these events have nothing to do with the actions of the people that happen to live in the region of the earthquake. In showing that earthquakes result from the movement of tectonic plates, the naturalist purifies nonhuman actors, carefully separating them from cultural significations and values with which they have been encrusted. Sure, none of us want to be in an earthquake, but we no longer think of the earthquake as having anything to do with us or whether or not we’re pleasing or displeasing the gods.

For lack of a better term, I will call the other sort of critique “semiotic critique” (it could just as easily be called “sociological”). This form of critique strives to purify what is purely social about the social or distinguish the natural from the cultural. Take Marx’s account of value in the first volume of Capital. In some inspired pages, Marx discusses the value of gold. The “natural attitude” is to see the value or worth of gold as an intrinsic property of the gold. In other words, the value of the gold is treated as belonging to the gold itself. Where the critical project of naturalization consisted in giving a naturalistic explanation of phenomena that are given ethical and supernatural significance, the critical project of “semiotic or sociological critique” will consist in giving a social explanation of properties that appear natural. Thus Marx will show how humans give value to the gold. Similarly, a thinker like Judith Butler will show how gender is socially constructed.

Within the modernist framework, the move lies in making things less real. The naturalist turns the ethical and supernatural interpretations of natural events into superstitions. The critical theorist turns the naturalization of certain phenomena into fetishes. Regardless of which side one sides with (and most of us side with both), something comes to be marked as real and something else as unreal. Just as we distill alcohol, purifying it, and thereby rendering it more potent, the critic distills nature and society, determining the share of being that belongs to each. The moderns are essentially decanters of being.

Within the framework of the ontology I am trying to develop, I am striving to avoid both of these options. I do not wish to choose between the social and the naturalist, becoming either an anti-realist on the one side or a scientific naturalist on the other side. When I assert a flat ontology, this is what I’m saying: that there is only one strata of being, not two incommensurable ontologies. I thus end up advocating a realism. However, this is not a realism of the eliminative materialist sort, where only physical and material beings are real. This is a realism where physical objects like black holes, quasars, quarks, trees, DNA, and bonobo monkeys are all real, but it is also a realism where fictional characters, writing, language, subjects, and so on are all real. In this regard, it is a promiscuous realism, because far from reducing the number of entities that are or that exist, it multiplies the number of entities that are or exist.

As a consequence, within the framework of my ontology, the modernist project of critique disappears. I can no longer proceed with the naturalist, showing that some social entity is really a natural phenomenon. Nor can I proceed like the sociologist, showing that something we believed to be natural is really social. At this point I can hear the screams in response: “Ah ha! Now we’ve got you! You believe that the communion host really is the body and blood of Christ!” “You believe that the solar eclipse really is an omen of famine yet to come!” “You believe that sexual orientation really is biological, rather than socially constructed!” All sorts of absurdities can be multiplied here and I’m sure I’ll hear them.

I think this line of objections brings us to Nate’s question:

…if we accept the two worlds as coexisting, then what does object-oriented thought actually philosophizing about? Or to put this another way, if the physical side of reality (our zombie world) can be explained away by particle physics and the Standard Model, what can object-oriented thought discuss? Is object-oriented thought, then, only truly adding to the discourse on language, culture, and the immaterial world? And, can we split the two “realities” in the first place? Do we have to treat a person as both a zombie (explained away by particle physics) and a human (explained away by philosophy)? Finally, should and can object-oriented thinking move outside of the realm of the symbolic and into the material, physical, and zombie-filled arena?

I think Nate is asking the right sort of question in asking what it is that object-oriented ontology philosophizes about, but I don’t think he poses it in quite the right way when posing it in terms of two worlds. The key point about flat ontology as I understand it, is that there is only one world (or an infinite number of worlds, but more on that in another post). In thinking about the relations among objects, the proper concept is that of assemblages, not relations between parts and wholes. A mountain bike is an assemblage. It is composed all sorts of elements related to one another. What is interesting about the mountain bike is the way these parts relate to one another in this assemblage. Some elements play a very minor role in the assembled object. If the covering on the handlebar falls off, the bike won’t cease to function. Some elements play a very major role in the assemblage. If the chain falls off you won’t get anywhere.

One central question for object-oriented ontology– over and above the question of what an object is –is the question of how objects get assembled together. How they fit together. Rather than losing sleep over whether or not particles are the really real or whether or not the social is the really real, instead onticology tries to think about assemblages of these things and the differences they each contribute. To what degree does a discourse, theory, or set of practices surrounding sexuality contribute to the formation of sexual orientation? What role does this gear play in the movement of a bike? What does DNA contribute to sexuality? What does Interview with a Vampire contribute to a person’s sexuality? Some of these things will contribute slight differences, but differences nonetheless. We might discover that certain things contribute no differences with respect to these particular objects. Onticology treats all of these entities as actors or objects, but it is not committed to the thesis that all of these entities contribute equal shares of difference. If Christ truly enters the host, that presence doesn’t seem to contribute much in the way of difference. Nonetheless, the theory that Christ enters the host (which is itself an object), produces all sorts of differences in the world. With regard to Nate’s zombie ruminations, can we argue that signs, discourses, narratives, and whatnot make differences at the neurological level? Catherine Malabou thinks so. Zizek thinks so. In other words, the influence doesn’t seem to be unidirectional such that the proper order of explanation is from the neurological to mental and social contents. Rather, causation here seems to be bidirectional, such that signifiers, signs, discourses, conversations, encounters, all have a profound impact on how our neural systems come to be organized. Applying the principle of parity, why do the eliminative materialists then insist on treating the genetic or the neurological as the only real factor where development is concerned. Here we have something, the signifier, producing tremendous differences, yet we’re told that we have to make a choice between the neurological or the signifier.

I suppose, then, that I think object-oriented ontology can lead us to ask better questions and practice greater parity in our explanations. Here it’s worthwhile to evoke Zizek’s notion of a parallax. A parallax is a sort of irreducible antinomy. As Zizek explains it with reference to Kant,

Let us take Kant’s confrontation with the epistemological antinomy which characterized his epoch: empiricism versus rationalism. Kant’s solution is neither to chose one of the terms, nor to enact a kind of higher “synthesis” which would “sublate” the two as unilateral, as partial moments of a global truth (and, of course, nor does he withdraw to pure scepticism); the stake of his “transcendental turn” is precisely to avoid the need to formulate one’s own “positive” solution. What Kant does is to change the very terms of the debate; his solution – the transcendental turn – is unique in that it, first, rejects the ontological closure: it recognizes a certain fundamental and irreducible limitation (“finitude”) of the human condition, which is why the two poles, rational and sensual, active and passive, cannot ever be fully mediated-reconciled – the “synthesis” of the two dimensions (i.e., the fact that our Reason seems to fit the structure of external reality that affects us)always relies on a certain salto mortale or “leap of faith.” Far from designating a “synthesis” of the two dimensions, the Kantian “transcendental” rather stands for their irreducible gap “as such”: the “transcendental” points at something in this gap, a new dimension which cannot be reduced to any of the two positive terms between which the gap is gaping. And Kant does the same with regard to the antinomy between the Cartesian cogito as res cogitans, the “thinking substance,” a self-identical positive entity, and Hume’s dissolution of the subject in the multitude of fleeting impressions: against both positions, he asserts the subject of transcendental apperception which, while displaying a self-reflective unity irreducible to the empirical multitude, nonetheless lacks any substantial positive being, i.e., it is in no way a res cogitans. Here, however, one should be more precise than Karatani who directly identifies the transcendental subject with transcendental illusion:

yes, an ego is just an illusion, but functioning there is the transcendental apperception X. But what one knows as metaphysics is that which considers the X as something substantial. Nevertheless, one cannot really escape from the drive /Trieb/ to take it as an empirical substance in various contexts. If so, it is possible to say that an ego is just an illusion, but a transcendental illusion.

However, the precise status of the transcendental subject is not that of what Kant calls a transcendental illusion or what Marx calls the objectively-necessary form of thought. First, the transcendental I, its pure apperception, is a purely formal function which is neither noumenal nor phenomenal – it is empty, no phenomenal intuition corresponds to it, since, if it were to appear to itself, its self-appearance would be the “thing itself,” i.e., the direct self-transparency of a noumenon. The parallel between the void of the transcendental subject ($) and the void of the transcendental object, the inaccessible X that causes our perceptions, is misleading here: the transcendental object is the void beyond phenomenal appearances, while the transcendental subject already appears as a void.

The antinomy between nature and culture that haunts modernity is a sort of parallax. So long as we choose the social side, the natural disappears. So long as we choose the natural side, the cultural disappears. The solution, as Zizek puts it, is not to effect a synthesis of these two positions, or a “positive solution”, but rather to affirm the antinomy itself as an irreducible gap. So long as we view the world through the lens of modernity, we cannot see the “solution” to this antinomy as we’re still asking ourselves “is nature based on the human side of the equation or the human based on the natural side of the equation, or is it some synthesis of the two?” Object-oriented ontology’s move is to deny the whole distinction from the outset, treating all of these objects as real objects. I don’t know if this quite fits Zizek’s criterion. I’ll have to think on it more, to see whether or not I can find the sort of “gap” he’s talking about. Zizek’s own solution, it seems to me, is not realist in that being, for him, remains sutured to the human and the subject. I don’t think Zizek would himself disagree with this characterization given his debt to German Idealism. If this is fair, then it seems to me that Zizek is still choosing one side of the modernist divide (the social side). Nonetheless, it would certainly be nice, however, to refer to my realism not simply as “onticology”, but as parallax realism. Perhaps the gap would lie in the thesis that objects are withdrawn or barred.

Thanks Nate.