A new blog has emerged that has shown a great deal of interest in OOO and which is full of energy and thought. In recent days, a debate has emerged surrounding realism with Fragilekeys arguing for an antirealist position, and Joseph Goodson arguing for a realist position (here, here, and here). In my view, OOO doesn’t fit easily with any of these positions (and here I’ll cop that I’m speaking about my version of OOO, not Graham’s, Ian’s, or Morton’s).
This whole issue is very complicated. First, there are two types of idealism: metaphysical and epistemological idealism. Metaphysical idealism is the strong thesis that ideas (whether in the form of cognitive processes, signs, power, or language) literally create reality such that there is no reality apart from these things. This would be the absolute idealism that Hegel attempted to develop (under a non-Zizekian reading), but also the subjective idealism of Berkeley. Epistemological idealism is the thesis that there is a reality independent of human categories, but we can’t know anything about it. This would be the thesis of theorists such as Kant, Derrida, and moderate versions of Lacanianism. We can contrast these positions to those of representational realism (what is often called “naive realism”). Representational realism would be the thesis that 1) what we represent is reality as it is and 2) that this reality would be the way we represent it regardless of whether or not human beings represented it.
It’s further important to distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism. Epistemological realism is a thesis about our knowledge to the effect that reality is as we represent it. Ontological realism is the thesis that entities are as they are regardless of whether or not we represent them. OOO is an ontologically realist position and, I believe (at least in my variant, but I think also in Harman’s), an epistemologically anti-realist position. What does that mean and how is it possible?
OOO is a position about what is and how things are, not a thesis about knowledge or our ability to represent things as they are. What a being is, says OOO, has nothing to do with whether we represent it and what we call it. A dog, for example, is a dog regardless of whether we call it a dog. A stellar body is a stellar body whether we call it a moon, a planet, a star, an asteroid, or particle of dust. Within this framework, how we represent things (whether through concepts or language) is irrelevant to what things are.
However, here’s the twist: OOO is an onticological realist position, but an epistemological anti-realist position. This necessarily follows from the basic ontological claims of OOO. OOO argues that objects are withdrawn from one another such that no two objects ever encounter one another. As a consequence, objects are only able to relate to one another by translating one another. Yet a translation is a distortion of one object by another object. No object ever relates to any other object in terms of how that object is in and of itself. Insofar as knowledge is a form of relation, it follows that representation can never be a representation of objects as they are (naive realism), but can only ever be a translation of other objects. As a consequence, it follows that OOO is necessarily anti-realist where epistemology is concerned.
So if OOO is epistemologically anti-realist, why isn’t it led to an ontologically anti-realist position as well? I provide the answers to this question in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects, which should be out very soon. However, the first answer is that for OOO that phenomenon of translation is no longer restricted to how humans relate to objects. What Kant says of the relation of humans to objects, OOO argues, is true of how any object relates to another object. OOO argues that “distortion” or translation is a ubiquitous ontological phenomenon for all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. In this way, OOO undermines the anthropocentric index of idealism and antirealism by generalizing it to all relations among objects in the universe. A rock is no less a Kantian subject that distorts or translates the “in-itself” in its own way than a human. Where Kant treats this phenomenon as unique to the human and as an epistemological affair, OOO treats it as an ontological affair that is true of all object.
Second, OOO argues– in my version, which I call “onticology”, at least –that second-order observation is possible. Second-order observation is the observation of how another observer observes. Although objects are withdrawn from us, we can observe how other observers (objects) observe, or how they sort the world and relate to the world around them. We can observe how societies observe, how bees observe, how rocks observe, how other persons observe, and so on. Put differently, we can investigate how they “construct” “their reality” based on inputs and outputs issues from these other systems and objects. Because objects are withdrawn and we must employ our own distinctions to observe another system or object, these observations will always be provisional and subject to revision. Yet nonetheless we are able to engage in second-order observation. In this way we are able to break with anthropocentric references, recognizing the contingency of our own observations, to see that other systems observe differently. We have a name for those human systems that aren’t able to observe in this way: psychosis. Von Uexkull, Luhmann, and Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology have pointed the way to how this second order observation is possible. OOO has sometimes been taken to task for not taking into account “point of view” and “perspective”. What this misses is the manner in which OOO is profoundly inspired by Leibniz in arguing that every object is a point of view or an observing system.
In this regard, the OOO theorist is unperturbed by the linguistic arguments that Fragilekeys deploys. These things are no surprise. Why? Because each object translates other objects in its own ways. Language is one of the ways in which objects translate other objects, producing what I call local manifestations. In a number of respects, I thus find I have no objections to Fragilekey’s observations. Ontologically, he is merely pointing out how one system or object translates other objects. My only differences would be two-fold. First, by virtue of second-order observation I believe we are able to observe how non-linguistic systems observe and relate to the world about them. Second, I disagree with the thesis that language is not an object. This line of argument will become clearer when my argument on Derrida– “The Time of the Object” –is finally released. For me language is a dimension of a particular type of objects: social systems. It has all the properties that Fragilekeys describes in his latest post, but is no less an object for all that. The thesis that language doesn’t exist comes as no surprise to me as it is merely the thesis that language cannot be totalized; yet insofar as objects are withdrawn from themselves, this is exactly what the onticologist would expect. The move to be avoided is the thesis that all entities are necessarily subordinated to language.