I’m just now discovering Adrian Ivakhiv’s response to my earlier post on objects and relations (apologies for that!). Since it seems that Adrian and I are very close to one another in the spirit of what we’re trying to do, I just wanted to respond to a couple of points he makes. Adrian writes,

The issue I have is not with either Levi’s onticology or Graham’s OOO as it is with the general perception (a perception I don’t think I’ve gotten from either of them, but from others) that “object-oriented” philosophy, as a kind of generic term, is a new and important development within Continental philosophy. Used in this broader sense, especially with the “-oriented” attached to the “object,” one can’t help but to think this means “object” in the everyday English sense of the word. And when I get asked (as I have been) why I’m interested in this trend, it’s difficult for me to answer that, because the term sounds too much like “objectivity,” “objectivism,” and all the other things the word “object” has been philosophically associated with.

The general answer others might give, I imagine, goes something like this: it’s a move away from X (subjectivity, perception, phenomenology, correlationism, Kantianism, relationism, or whatever else) and back to the actual real THINGS that make up the world. (That of course sounds, unintentionally I’m sure, a lot like Husserl’s “Back to the things themselves!” The difference is that here it’s the actual things, not our perceptions of those things. But I’m not willing to concede that we can purify the world of our perceptions.) While I can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard this, it’s still made to sound too much like a swing of the pendulum from one side (subjectivity, relationality) to the other (objects). And I dislike that both because I’m tired of swings of the pendulum, when what we need is more integrated accounts of how all these things (objectivity and subjectivity, etc.) work together, and because I think it will have a hard time doing much work outside the limited circles of (mostly) young Continental philosophers who use the term now. So my issue is really a strategic one.

I’ve had similar reservations about the term “object-oriented ontology” and it’s one of the reasons I often use the term “onticology” instead. At the level of connotations the term simply doesn’t play very well. On the one hand, there are all the connotations that play into “objectification” and “reification”. Certainly object-oriented ontologists aren’t making a case for this! Indeed, in my own critique of actualism, this sort of objectification and reification is precisely one of the things I wish to avoid. On the other hand, when folks hear the term for the very first time I think the tendency is to assume, as Adrian points out, that object-oriented ontologists are making a case for “being objective”, or rejecting subjectivity in favor of objectivity, or “being scientific”. In other words, at the level of connotations the term all too readily suggests a defense of Enlightenment objectivism.

read on!

However, this is not what’s going on at all. The “object-centeredness” of object-oriented ontology should not be understood as a turn away from subjectivity to objectivity, so much as a rejection of that bad habit in philosophy that focuses exclusively, as Graham would put it, on the subject-object, mind-world, language-world, culture-nature gap. And this focus is characteristic of both anti-realisms and scientific realisms. OOO rejects both of these options. Thus the point not to be missed is that far from rejecting humans or subjects, OOO situates them as objects among other objects. Rather than a centered relation where somehow everything always refers back to the human, OOO thinks of humans among other beings in the world. As a consequence, humans can’t be thought as something opposed to objects.

In this respect, there are basically two criteria for determining whether or not one is an object-oriented ontologist: First, whenever you think of an entity do you immediately think of it as something that stands opposed to a subject or that is a presentation or manifestation for a subject? Is your first question that of how we gain access to this entity, know it, or whether or representations mimetically reflect the object? If so, then you’re not an object-oriented ontologist as you see every object as referring back to a subject or a gaze. If, by contrast, you think of subjects as objects among other objects without having any special or foundational ontological privilege for being (clearly we’re important to ourselves!) then you’re coming pretty close to the OOO camp.

Note, nothing about this ontological this undermines talking about dependency relations that are particular to the human. A show, for example, is constructed for the gaze of a viewer. To understand entities like shows and plays and works of art it’s necessary to take that gaze into account. Similarly, knowledge is something that we produce. We have to take into account knowers when discussing the situated production of knowledges. Examples could be multiplied. The point is to avoid falling into that trap where every object is thought or conceptualized as a relation to a subject.

Second, does your ontology have anything to say about object-object relations that don’t involve the human in any way? If your ontology has something to say about these sorts of relations, if it doesn’t treat every relation as either dyadic (subject-object) or triadic (subject-object-object), then you fall into the object-oriented ontology camp.

Why is any of this interesting or important? In my view it’s important because contemporary philosophy and social theory has focused almost exclusively on the relation between representation and represented, language and world, sign and object, mind and world, and because of all this it has become blind to the role played by other actors in collectives. This, I believe, leads to a whole host of theoretical problems and poorly posed questions. If we’re analyzing the role of technology, for example, in a collective, then treating it as a manifestation of signifiers, signs, or representations is not going to get us very far. The sorts of differences technology introduces can’t be adequately thought in terms of representations, correlations, signs, or signifiers. These are non-signifying differences that have a profound impact on signifying structures. Likewise, it’s very difficult to think ecological issues if we halt at the level of cultural artifacts, discourses, and narratives. We need a place for these other types of actors and we need to curb our bad habit of situating all questions in reflexive and representational terms.

Now, as I’ve often argued, I don’t think OOO is necessarily arguing something new here. The claims of OOO are familiar to ecological theorists, certain science and technology theorists, certain media studies folks, and certain feminist thinkers. Science and technology theorists that emphasize the production of knowledge in the lab will be familiar with the role played by nonhuman actors like laboratory equipment. Media studies theorists like Ian Bogost that seek to investigate things like gaming platforms, fiber optic cables, programming, and all the rest know that media cannot be adequately theorized by focusing on the content alone. Ecophilosophers know that the Australian cane toad is not just a diacritical difference undergoing a free play of signs in a semiotic web, but is a genuine actor in a network of nonhuman actors that produces differences that are not on the order of representation or signification. Likewise, feminist thinker like Donna Haraway or Karen Barad everywhere emphasize the role of nonhuman and nonsignifying differences.

My point is that there are entire trends of thought that have been moving in this direction for decades. And these lines of thought have emerged precisely as a function of the sorts of problems these theorists have sought to resolve. Their fields of inquiry have ineluctably pushed them in the direction of a peculiar realism. It is notable that all of these theorists have engaged with fields of practice or engagement with the world that aren’t simply on the order of texts. It is this that leads them in an object-oriented direction. Thus, if much literary theory and continental philosophy has tended in the direction of anti-realism, of linguistic idealism, of the primacy of the representation-represented relation, I think this has a lot to do with the manner in which they deal primary with texts. For example, if you come primarily out of the tradition of German hermeneutics you’re going to be inclined to think that texts are primarily what is real.

What I think OOO adds to these discussions is a little bit of clarity. It makes explicit what has often been implicit, thereby enhancing the possibility of critique with respect to representationalist assumptions governing so much contemporary thought, but also enhancing concrete research possibilities by bringing to the fore that which is largely invisible within the current theoretical matrix. None of this entails that we ought to give up analysis of signifiers, signs, narratives, and all the rest. Not at all. All of that remains. What is rejected is the unilaterialism and hegemony these modes of analysis completely enjoy, where they become blind to their own limitations and partial perspective on the world.