Lukas Verburgt has written an interesting post on OOO and materialism. Here’s a taste:
The most common misunderstanding about object-oriented ontology is probably that it entails a rigid materialism. Since it talks of ‘materials’ and often does this with reference to ‘beings’ it seems not unfair to label it as a contemporary ‘materialist ontology’ (reminiscent of both Lucretius’ atoms and different Marxist positions). And a title like Material Beings would probably count as a good candidate for any object-oriented publication.
Actually, there is a book, by Peter van Ingwagen, that is called ‘Material Beings’. Is he, a University of Notre Dame metaphysician, an object-oriented philosopher then? In brief, he argues that all material objects are made up of elementary particles, such that random everyday objects do in fact not exist; they are abstractions of a certain arrangement of elementary particles. As Van Ingwagen puts it, where it seems that there is a table, there are just elementary particles arranged tablewise. Importantly, an everyday abstraction like a table does not count as an object and thus, given materialist rigor, does not exist. They, perhaps give the impression that we are allowed to talk of an object, but we are not; tables are like a or on pair with a pack of wolves – we refer to it as a single object or entity, but for Van Ingwagen they are mere abstractions. This allows him to focus on objects and nothing but objects. So, he seems quite object-oriented to say the least.
Actually, he is not. And the fact that such a figure as Van Ingwagen is not relates to the fact that object-oriented ontology is having a hard time to free itself of the ‘accusation’ of materialism as well as to the justified question; ‘what exactly is the meaning of materialism’? I totally agree with both Levi Bryant’s and Ian Bogost’s (see here and here); materialism seems to be everywhere these days (‘new materialism’, ‘neo-materialism’ etc. etc.) but it is questionable what it actually comes down to.
Actually there is a bit of a friendly debate in OOO surrounding this very issue. Bogost and I are both fall under the materialist wing of OOO. Although she does not call herself an object-oriented philosopher, Bennett would be included in this camp as well. Hopefully I’m not putting words in Ian’s mouth, but when Ian and I say we’re perplexed by much of what is called materialism, this is not because we’re rejecting materialism, but because we don’t see what’s materialistic in these orientations. For example, how is Badiou’s thesis that “the whole is not” a materialist thesis? And here I’m thinking of materialism in the Lucretian sense of everything being composed of matter. I will say, however, that I’ve come a long way in my understanding of why certain Marxists, Foucaultians, Althusserians, etc., refer to themselves as materialists. They are making the claim that it is material practices (working on things, building things, laboring, etc) that drive history and social formations, not ideas, norms, or concepts.
I’m not sure where Morton stands, but Harman, by contrast, rejects materialism and for very much the reasons that Lukas outlines in his post. At the CUNY event, Harman, Bennett, and I had a really great discussion on this issue. For Graham, materialism undermines objects. One example Graham gave was the Wall Street stock exchange. Paraphrasing Graham, he said something like “if we say that Wall Street is material, are we saying that it’s nothing more than its bricks, fiber optic cables, computers, etc?” In other words, under this conception of materialism, the objectness of Wall Street evaporates in the way described by van Ingwagen. They become mere “abstracta”.
This is certainly not a version of materialism that I accept. For me there are nothing but material entities. Everything that exists must be physical in some way or another (though I admit that I go back and forth in the case of numbers), but this doesn’t entail that things can be dissolved into elementary parts or units like atoms. Relations among parts are crucial as well and these relations cannot be reduced to their parts. It wouldn’t ever occur to me to treat the bricks of Wall Street as a part of Wall Street because these entities are not a part of the ongoing autopoiesis of Wall Street. All that I require is that form be physically embodied in some way or another and that there be some form of real material connection when entities interact (no magic, no action at a distance, nothing supernatural). Nonetheless, there is emergence that gives rise to unities that can’t be reduced to their parts. The parts can come and go while maintaining the form of the entity, but they are nonetheless replaced by other material parts.
It comes as a surprise to me to see materialism characterized in these sort of reductivist terms, though when I reflect on Democritus, Lucretius, and Van Ingwagen, I can see how there is one version of materialism that indeed undermines substances or individuals. I just don’t happen to share that materialism insofar as I advocate the phenomenon of emergence. At any rate, I’m an unrepentant materialist, I think it’s the only truly productive philosophical thesis that’s ever been articulated, I think it’s liberating and emancipating, and I think it fills our sense of the world with wonder and beauty. If people reject OOO (my version anyway) because it’s materialist I suppose that’s something I’ll have to live with.