Below I’ve posted a talk by Tim Morton discussing what he calls the “beautiful soul syndrome” and outlining a bit of his dark ecology. On the surface of things it seems that my position and Morton’s are quite far apart. After all, Morton is the author of The Ecological Thought which argues for the interdependence of all things, whereas us object-oriented ontologists argue that objects are withdrawn from all relations. Morton and I are currently working through these differences. In a number of respects, as paradoxical as it may sound, my advocacy of the withdrawal thesis is designed precisely to think the sort of ecological relations Tim wishes to think. Let me explain.
Ecological and dialectical thought has worked hard to draw our attention to the relational. In many respects, the central enemy of ecological thought could be said to be what Hegel called “abstract thinking“. The abstract thought, Hegel argues, is the thought that divorces entities from their relations and placements in a whole. This leads to a truncated and partial conception of being. Dialectical and ecological thought has struggled mightily against this tendency, seeking to demonstrate both the interdependence of phenomena and our implication within this web of relations or what Morton calls “the mesh”. Only in this way, it is argued, can we understand the impact of our actions on the environment. Given the stakes of these issues– our very existence is bound up with them –it comes as no surprise that the dialectically and ecologically inclined get touchy when the primacy of relations is questioned.
In this regard, object-oriented ontology is likely to appear as a reactionary retrograde move, for in its thesis that objects are autonomous and withdrawn it appears to divorce objects from their relations, turning us away from an investigation of systemic relations and interdependences and diminishing our ability to articulate the manner in which entities are implicated in one another. This, however, strikes me as a superficial understanding of what object-oriented ontology is up to.
Within the framework of my onticology, the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation draws our attention to what takes place when relations between beings emerge. There are not two terms here, but three terms: Virtual proper being, local manifestation, and exo-relations. Virtual proper being refers to the powers and capacities of an object. These powers and capacities are always withdrawn, they are never present in what Harman calls “sensuous objects”, and they are always in excess of any of their local manifestations. Local manifestation refers to the actualized qualities of an object. In biological terms we could think of local manifestation as the phenotype of an object. Exo-relations are relations of exteriority between objects. Exo-relations play a key role in the production of local manifestations, determining, in many respects, the phenotype that a withdrawn object will come to embody in the world. In other words, the concept of exo-relations draws our attention to what happens to objects when they enter into a mesh of objects or what I call a “regime of attraction”. This concept invites us to be attentive to how contexts play a key role in accounting for why objects take the form they take.
Ecologists and dialectical thinkers are quite right to draw our attention to the relational, however I think they’re on shaky ground both at the level of both ontology and ecological practice when they argue that objects are their relations. Ontologically, because a great deal of ecological thought advocates the thesis that relations are always internal to objects– i.e., that nature is a harmonious and relational whole –they find themselves caught in something of a pragmatic contradiction. The ecologist (not Morton) wishes to say that being is this mesh of internal relations, while simultaneously arguing that the intervention of foreign objects disrupts this order (e.g., the introduction of the cane toad into the eco-system of northern Australia or the burning of fossil fuels).
Here it is entirely appropriate to ask the following question: What are the conditions under which the ecological can be disrupted? The only possible answer to this question is if relations are external to objects. It must be possible for objects to enter into new relations and for them to be separated from other objects if the disruption of collectives is to be possible. Indeed, without something like this autonomy from relations it is impossible to think Darwin’s strange hypothesis. Without something like the externality of relations how are we to think speciation through geographical drift? Without something like the externality of relations, how are we to think the role played by the intervention of actors foreign to a collective such as what is currently taking place with the cane toad or what occurred when a large asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago?
To my thinking, what really interests ecologists and dialectical thinkers is not internal relations, but rather the exteriority of relations in which local manifestations are produced through contingent, aleatory, and external relations. At the level of practice, it will be noted that ecotheorists are extremely attentive to relations of exteriority and the local manifestations these produce. When, for example, ecotheorists analyze drilling for natural gas through a process known as “fracking”, what interests them is the production of new phenotypes and local manifestations in streams, fish, wildlife, water supplies, and human bodies (the cancers and neurological disorders such drilling is currently causing on a massive scale throughout the United States). The entire premise of such an ecological analysis is that objects are withdrawn. Howso? Precisely because such an analysis is premised on the possibility of the carpentry of objects (Graham’s gorgeous expression) being otherwise; or, in my terminology, objects undergoing different local manifestations.
Here we encounter the importance of this line of thought for practice. While I hate this analogy, there are a number of respects in which object-oriented ontology amounts to good book keeping or accounting. What onticology refuses is the reduction of entities to their local manifestations. Entities can always be manifested differently under different conditions. There is thus an emancipatory dimension to this thought. Because objects cannot be equated with their actuality or local manifestation, because they are always in excess of their local manifestations, it is possible to create other worlds and other ways of living. Where “the environment” is surreptitiously unified and treated as a harmonious whole we are led to a sort of tragic view of the world where it is impossible to change anything because everything is treated as internally interrelated and interdependent. This is what Morton calls “over-thereism”. Nature is treated as a unified whole that is “over there”, outside of us, rather than something that we’re entangled in.
Throughout Morton’s thought, I think, it’s possible to sense a tension. On the one hand, Morton wants to emphasize the synchronic or interdependence of things. Yet on the other hand, he emphasizes the diachronic, the developmental, and the manner in which entities are “strange strangers”. The concept of strange strangers refers to the manner in which entities are withdrawn or the manner in which they can never simply be reduced to their actualizations. By contrast, the diachrony that Morton emphasizes already departs substantially from Saussurean and even Derridean diachrony/deferral. Where Saussurean diachrony is strictly guided by synchrony, Darwinian diachrony is punctuated by events, contingencies, arrivals of outsiders, encounters with strange strangers that push development in entirely new and surprising directions. In other words, it is a diachrony of interacting withdrawn objects that forge relations but which cannot be said to be relational through and through. Such is the diachrony of OOO, where the carpentry is always a work and a becoming, generating of new objects and where the sensuous manifestations of objects are always a contingent surprise.
At any rate, on to Morton’s talk.