Recently Scott wrote a very generous post about my discussion of time in The Democracy of Objects. There he worries that my conception of time reduces it to information and is anthropocentric. This certainly is not my intention, so I thought it might be worthwhile to say a bit about how I conceive time. The main thing is not to see time and space as containers of objects. If it is true that objects make up the primitive or primordial constituents of being, then it follows that time and space has to arise from objects, rather than being containers in which objects are housed. In this I follow Lucretius, Leibniz, and Kant; all of whom, in their own way, treat time and space as arising from objects (though, in the case of Lucretius, space is treated as primitive and irreducible to objects).
Before getting into a discussion of time in my next post, let’s begin with issues of terminology. Rather than calling the entities that make up being objects (The Democracy of Objects) or machines (Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media), let’s call them “monads”. I draw the term “monad” from Leibniz’s ontology, without sharing endorsing all the characteristics he attributes to his monads. It’s not a question of abandoning terminology, but of varying terminology in such a way as to capture dimensions of a concept that can only be partially expressed in language, while also evading the linguistic connotations that often accompany terms in ordinary language. Thus, the term “object” has the advantage of drawing our attention to independently existing things, but has the drawback of leading us to think of something posited by a subject and that is a brute clod that just sits there for our gaze or regard. The term “machine” has the advantage of drawing our attention to the way things operate on inputs producing outputs, but has the disadvantage of making us think only of technology, but not rocks, atoms, animals, clouds, and institutions. For those unacquainted with the autopoeitic theory of Maturana and Varela (indispensable reading), there’s also a tendency to think of machines as clock-like mechanisms.
For those familiar with Leibniz, the term “monad” has the advantage of making us think of entities that experience, observe, and act in the world. In other words, monads are subjects. However, the advantage of the term “monad” over that of “subject” is that the former situates us in a pluralistic, posthumanist perspective. Upon hearing the word “subject” our cognitive tendency is to immediately think “human subject”. The term “monad” and strange and foreign enough to assist in avoiding this conjunction. Dolphins are monads. Computers are monads, Emeralds are monads. Stars are monads. The planet Earth is a monad. Quarks are monads. Each of these entities is a point of view on the universe. They differ amongst themselves, of course. They have different capacities as well. For example, some have awareness, goal-directed action, and desires, while others do not. Monads are, of course, composed of other monads. Paraphrasing Graham Harman, monads are wrapped within monads and are, in turn, wrapped in monads. The key thing to get is that Objects = Machines = Things = Monads. In this regard, we can say that OOO (object-oriented ontology) = MOO (machine-oriented ontology) = TOO (thing-oriented ontology) = MoOO (monad-oriented ontology). Every object is as much an “experiencer” of the universe (a monad) as it is an operator (machine) as it is an independent being (thing). Each of these terms draws attention to different features or dimensions of things.
Of the monads Leibniz writes that,
[i]f we choose to give the name “soul” to everything that has “perceptions” and “desires” in the general sense…, all simple substances or …monads may be called souls, but as feeling is something more than a simple perception, I am willing that the general name of monads or entelechies shall suffice for those simple substances which have only perception, and that those substances only shall be called “souls” whose perception is more distinct and accompanied by memory. (Monadology, 19)
For Leibniz, all souls are monads, but not all monads are souls. I cringe when writing the term “soul” due to its theological baggage. However, coming out of the Greek tradition, we can treat “soul” as merely signifying anything that has its principle of motion from within itself. Where a rock must be hit by something else in order to move, plants have “soul” in that they grow, animals have “soul” in that they both grow and can move about and perceive of their own accord, and humans have “soul” in that they can grow, move about, perceive, and reason. Whether or not these sortings are correct– some plants appear to be capable of movement and perception and many animals seem to have reason –the important point is that “soul” is here a synonym for “life”. There are living beings and nonliving beings, but all beings are monads.
…[just] as the same city looked at from different sides appears entirely different, and is as if multiplied perspectively; so also it happens that, as a result of the infinite multitude of [monads], there are as it were so many different universes. (Monadology, 57)
Objects are not just independent beings that exist in their own right regardless of whether anyone perceives them, thinks about them, or discourses about them, but as monads are also points of view on the universe or perceivers of the universe. Rocks are open to only certain features of the world and integrate those flows in ways that are different from plants. Mantis shrimp can see far more wavelengths of light than I can see. Insurance companies interact with people and are open to people in ways that are different the way in which cats and humans interact or the way in which two humans interact. Autistics encounter the world differently than people with depression.
Each monad is structurally open to the broader world in its own specific way (i.e., it has its own particular “sensibility” or aesthetic structure), and each monad has its own specific way of operating on the flows to which it is open. For example, a flower operates on light in a different way than an octopus. It is recognition of this that opens the idea of what Ian Bogost has called “alien phenomenology”, von Uexkull has called “ethology”, and what the autopoietic theorists have called “second-order observation”. Alien phenomenology consists in “observing the observer” or the attempt to think how another monad experiences or encounters the world. “Think like an octopus!” Rather than observing the octopus and analyzing what it is for me, I instead attempt to attend to what it’s like to be an octopus or how octopi experience the world. While I can never come to have octopus experiences, I can, in fact, understand a great deal about how octopi experience their world, what flows are open to them, what things in their environment are important to them and why, and so on.
Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer”, is an exemplary alien phenomenologist in this respect. When he goes to help families who are having trouble with their dogs, he doesn’t begin with the premise that the dog is a problem for its family, but rather that the family and the environment they’ve built are a problem for the dog. Through his understand of how dogs experience the world, their behavior, how they think, their desires, and what they need, he suggests changes in the environment and the behavior of the family, leading to changes in how the dog behaves. Millan attempts to think like a dog so as to better attend to dogs. Rather than beginning from the premise that dogs are pets, he instead adopts the dog’s point of view and notes that for dogs the humans that make up the family are a part of the dog’s pack. The question then becomes one of whether the family is enacting functional or dysfunctional pack behavior from the dog’s point of view.