Ontology


Over at Networkologies Chris has graciously responded to my post last night here and here. I very much appreciate Vitale’s clarifications and apologies. I take charges of object-oriented ontology being in league with neo-liberal ideology and capitalism very seriously. When OOO first started to make a strong appearance in the blogosphere, it was not unusual to hear it charged with being somehow an apologetics for neoliberal ideology. I don’t think these are innocent charges or mere misunderstandings, but are, for anyone who understands what capitalism has done to this world, extremely grave charges.

This criticism seemed to come primarily from those deeply influenced by Zizek who advocate what I view to be an extremely idiosyncratic form of Marxism. And if I refer to this Marxism as idiosyncratic, then this is because economics is entirely absent in his thought (despite his protestations to the contrary in The Parallax View), because any meditation on technology or class is absent from his thought, because any discussion of resources and their role is absent, and because everything is reduced to the level of the signifier and an entirely idealist conception of the real (“the real is an effect of the symbolic”). Part of what happens here, I think, is a transcription of Latour’s views about Marxist thought (he rejects it), onto what onticology is up to. Here I think Latour is just plain wrong and that Marx is a lot closer to Annales School models of analysis that so deeply influenced ANT than Latour is willing to suggest.

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In my view one of the most under discussed aspects of Harman’s variant of object-oriented philosophy is his theory of the structure of objects and the division within objects between real objects and sensuous objects. The tendency is simply to talk about objects simpliciter, ignoring this complexity that resides in objects. I suspect that a lot of this will become clearer with the release of The Quadruple Object.

Graham schematizes the relation between real objects and sensuous objects in the following diagram:

I can’t give a complete commentary on Harman’s diagram as it would require a book in itself (indeed, there is not just one diagram but ten diagrams in The Quadruple Object), so I’ll limit myself here to a few brief indicative remarks. First, the distinction between real objects and sensuous objects is not the traditional distinction between appearance and reality. In the traditional distinction between appearance and reality the task is to pierce the veil of appearances so as to reach true reality. For Harman, the key points not to be missed are 1) that real objects are always withdrawn (Harman) or in excess (me) of any of their sensuous (Harman) manifestations (me), and 2) that objects only encounter each other as sensuous objects, never as real objects.

This brings me to another important point. When Harman refers to sensuous objects, he is not simply referring to objects as they are for humans or for animals, but objects as they are for any object. Thus, for example, a real rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human encounters a dog as a sensuous object. The domain of what Harman calls “the sensuous” is a genuinely ontological domain pertaining to relations among all objects, not a domain restricted to philosophy of mind or epistemology. Moreover, the domain of the sensuous is not the domain of the unreal, but is perfectly real in its own right.

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I’m still swamped with grading and will be so for another week, so I haven’t had much time to follow the blogs. With that in mind, I’m just now coming across Ivakhiv’s and Harman’s exchange pertaining to relations and objects. I have to say that I find this debate extremely gratifying because it seems to mark a new stage in the thought of the speculative realists. With the exception of Harman’s work (and perhaps Grant’s), early speculative realism devoted itself largely to the refutation of correlationism. Although Harman’s work often directed arguments against philosophies of access, it has largely been devoted to the development of a full-blown ontology as far back as Tool-Being. Among other things, the debate between the subtractive object-oriented ontologists and the relationist object-oriented ontologists is particularly interesting because it is deployed purely within the realm of ontology. In other words, it is no longer a debate between realists and anti-realists, but between two competing realist theories of existence. As such, it suggests discussion is moving past debates about whether epistemology is First Philosophy or whether ontology is First Philosophy… At least for a few.

As I’ve often remarked on this blog, I have the highest admiration and sympathy for Ivakhiv’s work. This admiration is not simply an admiration for his ontology, but also for his devotion to ecology and his ecological ethics. Nonetheless, I confess that I find his relationism and critiques of subtractive object-oriented ontology baffling. And if I find this critique baffling, then this is because Adrian seems to hold that subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects relations altogether, such that it holds that we should ignore relations among objects. Minimally, given Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, which possesses the subtitle “Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things”, this is a very perplexing assertion, for when Graham evokes the term “carpentry”, he is referring precisely to relations among objects. Where Tool-Being analyzed the subtraction or withdrawal of objects from all relations as a primitive ontological fact, Guerrilla Metaphysics examines relations that obtain among beings. So the first point here is that subtractive object-oriented ontology does not reject relations.

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Adrian Ivakhiv has an interesting post up defending ontology relationism and its importance for ecological thought. Adrian writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.

A couple of points. First, there’s an issue about philosophical vocabulary here. It is difficult to have these discussions if one doesn’t attend to the precise content of concepts. In the passages that I’ve bold-faced above Adrian characterizes object-oriented philosophy in terms of stability over change and process. Here I take it that Adrian is playing on ordinary language usages of the term “object”. However, it’s important to attend to how terms are actually used. Certainly we would end up with some very strange criticisms of Hegel if we took “Spirit” to signify ghosts, demons, and poltergeists; likewise, we would have a very difficult time understanding Heidegger if we understood “Dasein” in its ordinary language sense of the term as “existence”, and finally it would be very difficult to follow Whitehead if we took his term “organism” too literally. In this case of object-oriented ontology this point is important because if we don’t attend to what OOO purports to have discovered about the being of objects we’re bound to misconstrue its claims. Thus, for example, in the second paragraph cited above, Adrian talks about the thing at the center of our perception. The problem here is that in both my variant of OOO, onticology, and Harman’s variant of OOO, ontography, it is argued that you can’t perceive an object. The object is not what is perceived or what is at the center of attention.

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[Update: The title of this post has been changed because apparently the term “value” attracts every spam outlet under the sun, leading to a few hundred links to bargain sites. Yikes!]

Over at Hyper Tiling Fabio has an excellent post up relating his impressions of Dundee. I confess that I’m extremely sad that I was unable to attend the conference. So it goes. A couple of remark in Fabio’s post caught my eye. Fabio writes:

Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects.

I’m interested in hearing Fabio say more as to just what he means when he calls himself a relationist. Nothing about OOO prevents one from speaking about relations and from analyzing relations. What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims (at least in my formulation, though I think Harman and I are on the same page here). What OOO rejects is the thesis that all relations are internal relations. It has no problem with external relations.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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In response to my recent post on Endo-Relations and Topology, Will writes:

“Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible…”

“…No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects….”

So far so good…

“Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object.”

What I fail to grasp is how we do not introduce the unity of the “single object” through this retroactive cognition.
Alternatively, what lets us suppose that these “effects” can be “owned” by a single object?

This is a good and fair set of questions. The first point to note is that these are epistemological rather than metaphysical questions. That is, they are questions about how we come to know objects, not questions about what objects are regardless of whether or not we know them. It is important not to conflate these two domains of philosophy. The properties of a being are no less a properties of a being if we don’t know them. All I’m minimally committed to metaphysically is the thesis that objects are generative mechanisms and that generative mechanisms can fail to actualize such and such a property when they function in open systems. When I say that an object can fail to actualize a particular property in an open system I am not making a claim about our perception of the object. I am making a claim about the manifestation of the object in the world, regardless of whether any perceivers exist or not. Manifestation is first and foremost manifestation to a world not a perceiver or a knower. The point is that the object can be present in the world, without exemplifying a particular quality of which it is capable. For example, when fire burns in low gravity environments it flows like water. On earth, by contrast, flames lick upwards towards the sky. The capacity of fire to flow like water is non-manifest on Earth but is nonetheless a power of the object.

I outline this line of argument, drawn from the early work of Roy Bhaskar, in the two manifestos on object-oriented ontology in the side bar (here and here). The thesis that effects are products of objects relies on a transcendental argument. In other words, such mechanisms or objects must exist if our practice is to be coherent. Now Will asks “how do we not introduce the unity of the ‘single object’ through this retroactive cognition?” The answer is that this can happen. Why? Because knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints.

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