Over at Speculative Heresy, Mike Watson of Logical Regressions responds to my recent object-oriented ontology round-up, writing:

Principally, I am at odds with the idea that systems which are sympathetic to Science need be seen as diminishing the subject. I don’t see yet that anyone has convincingly reversed the copernican turn… I just don’t feel that the base objectivity of the subject or the equal footing on which the subject and the object stand in the wider realm of nature are sufficient bases to overturn the philosophical vantage point that only the subject can enjoy.

Again, that is with the concession that that subject is objectively construed, and in that sense I have sympathies with OOO, OOP, etc, yet I do not see the innovation here. It is mainstream knowledge that we are material constructs – a notion that wouldn’t have upset or even suprised my late Grandmother, who passed away long before Brassier even completed his doctoral thesis! What would be a truly great innovation would be the the ameliorisation of an ethical code to our objective existence, that could maintain an objective basis, without becoming hoplessly sentimental. If a proponent of OOP, OOO, SR or any other affiliated or non affiliated thinker could do that, then I’ll be porting my commitments to there’s!

To be clear, I was only pointing out that in his post Mike treats the subject as an object, while nonetheless rightly attributing a number of unique qualities to this particular object. The rest of his post can be read here. In his comments I get the sense that Mike is running together object-oriented ontology with the position of Ray Brassier. This is understandable as he already admitted earlier that he hasn’t read much of the other Speculative Realists and has most been focused on critiquing Brassier (and thank god for that!), but it is important to underline that object-oriented ontology differs fundamentally from Brassier’s position and from that of the other Speculative Realists as well. One important point, right at the outset, is that OOO, while certainly wanting to make room for the objects or generative mechanisms discovered by the sciences, doesn’t see them as exhausting the real or being more real than other sorts of real objects or generative mechanisms (subjects, numbers, symbolic entities, societies, works of art, etc.).

read on!

Here I think OOO stands out as the biggest departure from the history of philosophy among the various strains of SR. I already discussed this a bit earlier this week, but it’s worthwhile to expand on the point a bit. Given that the history of philosophy has been dominated, since modernity, by the nature/culture divide, the divide between subjectivity and objectivity, the divide between facts and values, the divide between the physical world and the subjective world, etc., all it seems to me that the positions of Meillassoux, Brassier, and Grant are doing is choosing the nature side of these binaries. Thus for the last fifty years we’ve had a world of Continental philosophy dominated by the social, the normative, and the subject to the exclusion of the natural. Not surprisingly, we are now getting the next dialectical shift or the “anti-thesis” (though Hegel never used that language), where suddenly the nature side of the equation is being given the upper hand and the social or cultural side of the binary is treated as epiphenomenal or a mere effect, just as the nature side of the binary was treated as an effect or epiphenomenon of social activity, language, culture, the subject, etc., during the last fifty years. In this respect, by choosing the nature side of the binary nothing has really changed as the binary itself still governs thought. If I were a Bloomian I’d be inclined to say that the recent shift to primacy of nature as the “really real” is the perfectly predictable effect of the anxiety of influence.

In object-oriented ontology, by contrast, this binary is not operative. There is not one domain, the “really real”, that consists of nature, and another domain, the social and the subjective. Instead there is just the world and the world has lots of things in it. Some of these things are generative mechanisms or objects like hydrogen and stars. Others are things like social institutions, ideologies, beliefs, norms, etc. Other things are things like works of art and literature. Yet others are subjects. All of these things are included in the real, full stop. As such, OOO is not engaged in the heated game of determining whether it is the social or the natural, the subjective or the objective, that is really real. This, I think, is one of the reasons that OOO theorists get it from all side. On the one hand you have those that have chosen the culture side of the equation charging OOO with dispensing with subjects, politics, norms, ethics, language, signs, and all the rest, sometimes going so far as to argue that for OOO theorists subjects must be zombies. On the other hand you have those who have chosen the nature side taking OOO to task with dispensing with things like the neurological, the quantum, stars, black holes, etc. I take this as a good sign.

What I’ve noticed is that people seem to have a really difficult time thinking an ontology where rocks, atoms of hydrogen, brain neurons, armies, cities, nations, signs, works of literature, contracts, norms, subjects, and many other things besides are on equal ontological footing. Here I think there’s a tendency to conflate dependency conditions for objects with the evaporation of objects. Consequently, as Mike rightly points out in his brief post over at Speculative Heresy, it is impossible to have a subject without electro-chemical brain processes. However, for many, the moment this is stated the conclusion that seems to follow is that the subject evaporates or that subjects are not themselves independent objects that while dependent on brains are nonetheless something other than brains. In other words, the idea seems to be that now that we know subjects can’t exist without brains we can cease granting subjects any ontological status whatsoever and simply talk about brains. Closely connected to the nature/culture distinction in modernity, there thus seems to be a strong drive towards what Graham Harman has called philosophical techniques of undermining and overmining objects. As Harman puts it,

For me it is individual objects that are real. And what’s becoming more important to me is this question: for all those positions that call objects a useless fiction, what are they granting reality in its place?

On the one hand there is what I called, in Bristol, the “undermining” approach to objects. In other words, objects are superficial encrustations or actualizations. What is real is either a boundless apeiron, or a churning matter laced with cryptic forms, or a primordial flux, or a topological pre-individual realm.

On the other hand there is what we could call, by analogy, the “overmining” positions. For such positions, the object is not a superficial encrustation, but a pseudo-deep and spooky fiction that explains nothing, since reality is much more evident. Reality is how it manifests itself to us. Or it is a thing’s relational involvements with other things. Or it is just a bundle of qualities. And so forth.

In the case above objects like the subject are undermined by being treated merely as folk-psychological descriptions of brain such that talk of brain, in principle, could completely replace talk of the subject. Alternative forms of undermining would treat the subject as an effect of language, power, economics, etc. The OOO thesis is not that relations of dependency don’t exist, but rather that objects do not evaporate by virtue of being dependent on other objects (here there are all sorts of points about meriology and emergence to be made, but I’ve outlined these elsewhere so I won’t repeat them here).

In a prior post, Mike writes:

Regarding Harman’s system, I am yet to understand how a plane of existence upon which all objects are equivalent accounts philosophically for the advantaged position of the subject, in philosphical discourse. Though this is not to disregard Harman’s claims on the nature of interactions between objects, which I find interesting. It’s just that I can only picture his system as workable on his terms if subjective thought is pictured as an object, the seeming superiority of which – with regard to the vantage point it holds in philosophical discourse – being also objective in complexion. In this sense though, all hierarchies between objects, as construed by the human ’subject’ (that is for Harman an object) are spirited back into the overall network of object interactions as existent entities, and so we again have a notion of a superior human ’subject’ as the objective ‘thought’ which attests to that ‘fact’. But I am not sure about this as I haven’t fully fathomed Harman’s texts.

It seems to me that there is something of a category mistake here. Nothing about object-oriented ontology denies the important place of the subject in philosophy or, for that matter, epistemology; though I think knowledge is a collective project, not an individual relation between a subject and a object. It is scarcely possible to imagine how a could reach the conclusion that anthropogenic global warming is taking place without legions of researchers gather evidence from all over the world and a very long history of scientific research in other disciplines discovering things about chemical and physical phenomena. There is thus something absurd in the way questions of knowledge are often posed in subject/object terms. Setting this aside, object-oriented ontology is a thesis about being not about philosophy. It comes as no surprise that the subject has a privileged place in philosophy because philosophy is a human activity that requires inquiry into the subject as one of its conditions.

There is a vast difference between the claim that the subject has a privileged place in philosophy, the claim that the subject has a privileged place in epistemology, and the claim that the subject has a privileged place in being. The first two claims are rather obvious, though as I just mentioned I think posing epistemological questions primarily in subject/object terms systematically distorts the questions of epistemology. However, the third claim cannot be accepted within the framework of object-oriented ontology because the subjects are but one set of beings among others. It seems to me that this should be a rather obvious and non-controversial point, yet I’ve been surprised at how many sparks it seems to generate. Insofar as object-oriented ontology is interested in the question of what objects are at the most abstract and general level, the question of the subject is bracketed because the question here is not “what is the subject’s relationship to being?” but “what is being?” Yet bracketing something does not entail excluding it or denying it. Quarks, stars, and trees are bracketed at this level of inquiry as well, but that doesn’t entail that object-oriented ontology denies the existence of quarks, stars, and plants. Moreover, questions for regional ontology are always open– even necessary –where we can ask the ontological question of what subjects are.