Drawing on Ian Bogost’s terminology, I am committed to the thesis that being is composed of units and, in this regard, am an object-oriented ontologist. I take it that such a thesis about units is the minimal condition for characterizing a body of thought as “object-oriented”. However, the term “object-oriented ontology” is more like terms such as “idealism” or “empiricism” or “rationalism”, than something like Husserlian phenomenology. In other words, it doesn’t refer to a shared set of commitments beyond the thesis that being is composed of objects. Thus you can be committed to the thesis that being is composed of substances (Aristotle) or things (Bennett) or objects (Harman) or monads (Leibniz) or processes (Whitehead) or machines (me) or actants (Latour), etc. There are a variety of options and there are debates among these different positions. There are a number of positions I share, for example, with Harman– who has been crucial in the development of my own thought (Prince of Networks, in particular, was a watershed moment for me) –while diverging with him on others (vicarious causation, his particular take on withdrawal– I think objects do relate –his positions on meaning– I’m not sure everything is an object), just as there are a number of positions I share with Bennett while being critical of others (her vitalism if, indeed, she is a vitalist) or that I share with Whitehead (I gravitate towards his views on process) while rejecting others his strong relationism.
In the introduction to Democracy of Objects I discuss how philosophy begins by wishing to discuss the being of substances (broadly construed) and strangely finds itself discussing our relation to our ability to know objects instead. It’s easy to see why this might occur. We ask what objects are, but this first seems to presuppose that we know objects. Thus as a matter of methodological priority, we think that we must first address this question of knowledge before we can discuss the being of objects. While questions of knowledge are indeed important, the problem is that we never seem to get to a discussion of the things themselves. Instead we discuss objects for-us rather than for-themselves. Many, of course, would argue that it is impossible to do the latter as it will always be us analyzing the objects. I think there’s good reason to suppose that that’s not the case, but I’ll save discussion of that for another occasion. If you’re interested you can read the Introduction and first chapter of Democracy.
The question I struggle with is where the boundary is to be drawn between what counts as an object and what counts, for lack of a better term, as a phenomenon. By “phenomenon” I here mean something that exists only in and through a correlation with some sort of subject. Here it would seem that Harman and Latour are far more radical than I. I find it very difficult to claim that hammers are objects in Harman’s sense of the word. Harman (and Latour) wish to argue that hammers are genuine substances that have independent existence of their own irreducible to any correlation. I find such a claim very difficult to swallow because it seems to me that hammers are only hammers for beings that use hammers as hammers. I readily recognize that there’s something there in my hand and grant that it has independent existence, yet the hammerness of hammers strikes me as a meaning and meaning strikes me as a relational phenomenon that only exists for meaning givers. Were meaning givers such as ourselves to die out as a result of a global catastrophe, the things formerly known as hammers would continue to exist, but it’s hard for me to see how they would still have the quality of hammerness. Maybe the issue is a bit easier to see in the case of money. The moneyness of money, its value seems to be something that only exists for money users. If we give money to someone from a remote region of the world that is not a part of global economy, it has– I imagine –no value for them. It is merely paper. Money’s value therefore seems to be relational.
The point here is that the moneyness of money and the hammerness of hammers are relational properties. Consequently, if we have committed ourselves to the thesis that “substance” is synonymous with “independent”, then we won’t be able to count these things as substances because their being qua hammer and money is dependent on a relation.
Perhaps there’s another way to go about this, but it requires modifying some core tenets of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (his anti-relationism). We might recognize that there are a variety of substances that are relational yet no less substances for all that. Trees are relational beings. They can’t exist without certain soil and atmosphere conditions, and require sunlight and carbon dioxide to live. Trees are dependent in all sorts of ways. Entities within ecosystems are dependent as well. Brazil nut trees, for example, require the existence of a rodent with particularly strong jaws to reproduce because the bulbs their nuts come in are incredibly hard. So far farmers have been unsuccessful in domesticating these trees because they require a very specific jungle ecology to exist, and for this reason an entire politics arises around these nuts as different groups struggle over trees located in various regions of the jungle. These trees require a relational network to exist as they do. We can even make the argument that rocks have all sorts of relational dependencies in this way. If temperatures get too high they will melt and be destroyed. If we were to throw a rock in a wormhole to another universe with different laws of physics, they would fly apart as their being is dependent on the universe of our physical laws.
It would thus seem that there are a variety of ways in which beings or substances we refer to as “natural” are relational in their existence as substances. If this is true, I wonder, then why do we draw such a hard and fast distinction between cultural entities and natural entities. We seem to hold that cultural artifacts like money and hammers are less real than Brazil nut trees because they are dependent on subjects to exist. Yet wouldn’t dependency on a subject just be another ecological condition like the soil, light, and atmospheric conditions required for trees? Money is a strange thing. We might be inclined to call its value subjective because it arises from us. Money is valuable because we value it. Yet that value is not dependent on any one of us. I cannot simply will a dollar bill to be worth a million dollars, just as I can’t make words mean anything I might like. In this regard, there’s always something objective about things like money and the meaning of words. When looked at from this vantage, perhaps we can then make the claim that there is a realism where cultural artifacts emerge. We don’t suggest that a species is somehow less real because it can become extinct or did become extinct. Why is it that we suggest that because another culture does not recognize the meaning of a particular artifact like our imagined people living outside global economy, that somehow this artifact isn’t real? Rather, the artifact requires certain ecological conditions to be that type of thing and those conditions aren’t met in these other contexts.