We live in a world pervaded by objects of all kinds, yet nowhere do we have a unified theory or ontology of objects. Whether we are speaking of technological objects, natural objects, commodities, events, groups, animals, institutions, gods, or semiotic objects our historical moment, far from reducing the number of existing objects as alleged by reductive materialisms, has actually experienced a promiscuous proliferation and multiplication of objects of all sorts. Moreover, this proliferation has caused massive upheaval and transformation all throughout planetary, human, and collective life. Yet outside of a few marginal, yet elite, disciplines such as science and technology studies, the investigation of writing technologies, environmental theory and philosophy, media studies, as well as certain variants of feminism and geographical studies, this explosion of objects barely provokes thought or questioning, much less any sort of genuine or informed engagement at the level of praxis.
In light of this situation one is reminded of the epigraph to Heidegger’s Being and Time:
‘For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being”. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have no become perplexed.’
This epigraph could just as easily be rephrased substituting the word “object” for “being”. Where before we thought we understood what it means to be an object, now we are perplexed. It is this perplexity that drives the questioning of object-oriented ontology.
1781: The Failure of Philosophy
If 1781 is a fateful watershed year for Western philosophy, then this is because it marks the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the devastating Copernican Revolution. Object-oriented ontology is not interested in Kant’s specific epistemology per se— one would be hard put to find many genuine Kantians today –but with the form of the Copernican Revolution as it has persisted and undergone variations since the 18th century. For, in effect, the Copernican Revolution will reduce philosophical investigation to the interrogation of a single relation: the human-world gap. And indeed, in the reduction of philosophy to the interrogation of this single relation or gap, not only will there be excessive focus on how humans relate to the world to the detriment of anything else, but this interrogation will be profoundly asymmetrical. For the world or the object related to through the agency of the human will become a mere prop or vehicle for human cognition, language, and intentions without contributing anything of its own. The Copernican spirit will thus consist in an anthropocentric unilateralization of the human-world relation to the detriment of the world. World, objects, will now become simple products of human cognition and philosophy will become a transcendental anthropology that seeks to investigate the manner in which this cognition forms or produces objects.
Kant sums up this inversion and its spirit early in the Critique of Pure Reason:
Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest. (B xvi)
In beginning with the hypothesis that objects conform to mind rather than mind to objects, Kant who genuinely sought a secure grounding for knowledge and freedom from the endless debates of metaphysics, paradoxically rids us of the need to consult the world or objects. For as Kant himself observes, this shift or inversion allows us discern how it is possible for something to be given in advance. Yet if the world is given in advance, then there is no longer any need to consult the world or objects. Rather, philosophy, at this point, becomes self-reflexive, interrogating not being or the world, but interrogating rather the mind that regards the world. While the Copernican turn will not deny that there is a world independent of mind, it will nonetheless argue that this world, as it is in-itself, is forever beyond human knowledge precisely because the world, for-us is everywhere and always structured by our cognition. As such, philosophy will become an investigation of the mechanisms by which cognition structures the world. However, what will be lost will be the ability for the world to surprise us. And if the world no longer has the capacity to surprise us, then this is because the world already conforms to the structuring agency of our cognition. The rabbit has already been put into the hat.
Through the Copernican Revolution, philosophy is rescued of the obligation to investigate the world and now becomes a self-reflexive investigation of how the human structures the world and objects. It is in this respect that philosophy becomes a transcendental anthropology and any discussion of the objects of the world becomes, ultimately, an anthropological investigation. For the object and the world are no longer a place where humans happen to dwell, but are rather mirrors of human structuring activity. It is this that Hegel will ultimately attempt to show in The Phenomenology of Spirit with his famous “identity of identity and difference” or “identity of substance and subject”. If Hegel is able to show that the object, which appears to be so transcendent to and alien to the subject, is ultimately the subject, then this is because the object is already a reflection of the sense-bestowing activity of the subject.
Avatars of Copernicanism
It is the form of Kant’s thesis, not its content that is important. Here, following Pauline Biblical criticism, we can distinguish between the letter and the spirit of Kant’s thought. At the level of the letter we will find very few thinkers that accept the Kantian epistemology as developed in his three critiques. Before the ink is barely dry, disputes and competing proposals begin to emerge. What goes almost completely uncontested is the general spirit of the Copernican Turn, wherein the world is to be thought as conforming to the human, rather than the human to the world. Thus, nearly all the major trends of contemporary philosophy are direct descendants of the Kantian turn in one way or another. Whether the philosophy proposes the structuration of the world by language, the symbolic, the signifier, or signs, or whether it is proposed that the world is structured by social forces or power, the unquestioned thesis is that the world conforms to humans rather than humans to the world. In short, what we get is a universalized transcendental anthropology. The dispute is over the mechanisms by which structuration takes place and whether these mechanisms are universal and pertain to a “deep structure” as in the case of Kant, or whether these mechanisms are culturally and individually variable. In all cases, however, philosophy remains self-reflexive and absolved of the need to consult the world because the structures by which the world is given are already given in advance. To consult the world is to fall prey to an illusion where it is believed that these structures are “out there”, when, in fact, it is we who impose these structures on the world.
It is precisely here that philosophy and theory loses its relevance. In a recent indictment of the humanities, Ian Bogost writes:
The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.
While there are certainly psychological motives to this indifference about the world (the desire for a comfortable mastery granted by the armchair and the self-reflexive turn), this indifference to the world is already a structural effect of the core assumption that has guided philosophy, theory, and the humanities since 1781: The thesis that the world conforms to the human, rather than the human to the world. Insofar as the world conforms to the human there is no need to speak of the world because the world, as Kant suggested, is always-already given in advance.
The Copernican Turn has generated genuine advances in our understanding of social phenomena of all kinds. These insights and discoveries should be retained in some form. However, the anti-realist turn has foreclosed the possibility of asking all sorts of vital questions. Within the framework of the anti-realist turn it is impossible to ask vital questions about technology, the environment, social structure, political thought, etc., precisely because the world is treated as being given in advance and is resulting from the agency of human structuring activity. With its obsessive focus on the human-world relation or gap, it becomes impossible to investigate networks of objects because objects are reduced to that which is posited by human beings. As a consequence, philosophy, theory, and the humanities become entirely irrelevant. An alternative is required that both retains the insights and discoveries of the Copernican Turn, while escaping from this excessive focus on the human-world gap. This alternative first requires a fourth blow to human narcissism, where man is dethroned from his position of centrality in the order of being and situated in his proper place as one being among others, no more or less important than these others.