Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Two-Faced Rhizome, #rhizo16

In the first chapter of their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari introduce us to rhizomatic structures and processes in the world, listing six characteristics that help illuminate the rhizome. They introduce the characteristics with a single sentence:
We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome. (7)
For me, this sentence has been easy to step over and move beyond—easy to ignore because it is a transitional statement, and a short one at that, intended to move us quickly from D&G's statement of the problem with arborescent thought and writing to their exploration of the solution: the rhizome. Unfortunately, in my hurry to get to the heart of their discussion, I have ignored the transition. I think this has been unfortunate.

I'm impressed that D&G are positioning themselves rhetorically, framing the chapter "Introduction: Rhizome" as an argument: they want to convince someone, perhaps us, that the rhizome is real and worth considering as a contrast to arborescent thought, and to do so, they must support their assertion with "certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome." In other words, they must provide evidence and some kind of argument, perhaps a persuasive argument. This resonates all the way back to Gorgias and Isocrates, and I suppose it should be no surprise. After all, Deleuze was a philosopher who took quite seriously and vigorously the task of investigating the workings of the world and to argue for certain approximate interpretations of and stances toward the world and against other interpretations and stances. Moreover, the chapter focuses heavily on the workings of language as the key dynamic by which both arborescent and rhizomatic thought and structures are expressed and worked out. Language, of course, has its rhetorical implications. So rhetoric is implicated throughout the chapter.

As they often do in ATP, however, D&G undercut their rhetorical stance with the cheeky opening phrase "we get the distinct feeling that …". It's as if they understand the need to give us characteristics of the rhizome as some kind of persuasive support, but they see the humor in trying to argue in arborescent thought structures for that which is not arborescent. Few structures are more thoroughly arborescent than a Western-style argument with a central thesis—supported by logical, relevant details—that positions a coherent author against a coherent audience in an attempt to cause the audience to think or behave differently. This is the bedrock of Western academic, scientific, and legalistic discourse, and I don't think that D&G want to become entangled in it. Of course, they still want to cause us to think differently. They have a problem.

I get the sense that they avoid rhetorical persuasion as much as possible in favor of demonstration: they will write the rhizome and hope we get it with only the barest, cheeky nod to standard, rhetorical argument. As I mentioned in an earlier post, they begin their demonstration by a-centering the writer's voice, becoming a multiplicity themselves, and by a-centering their topic, making "use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away" (3). They a-center the reader who wants a reasonable argument to follow, some "lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories", but instead confronts a rapid flash of images, snatches of doggerel, formulae, tidbits of music, psychology, biology, physics, mathematics, and various other "lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification" often expressed in non-grammatical structures: "When rats swarm over each other" (7). This working out of the rhizome in language produces "phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture", and their text is like this for me: slowing down at times into a coherent idea that I can focus on, absorb, and turn into sense, but then immediately speeding up and sheering away to a new space in ways that I cannot follow immediately.

Of course, a persistent reader will eventually be able to follow by constructing a pathway that reliably, even if wrongly, takes them from one image to the next. Readers always do this when reading any text, but D&G make me conscious that I am mapping their text, and they make me work for it. I know that I do not know how they get from rats to bodies without organs, and I must map my own way. Of course, in most prose writing, we want the author to map the way for us and make it easy to arrive at the point. This kind of explicit clarity is a hallmark of academic writing. We want the author to say clearly, "Trace after me." D&G make more rigorous demands of readers. It's as if they expect us to be kindergarteners who can pass through a plain, smooth cardboard box into medieval castles, deepest space, or computer chips. ATP, then, may be a book as much for beginners as for experts. Maybe more so.

This a-centering of reader, writer, and topic does not lead to an orderly, Western argument, the kind I demand that my students write. Rather, it leads to what D&G call an assemblage:
All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.
D&G are writing an assemblage, not an argument, even though they know that the situation demands an argument, that their own tradition demands an argument. What's more, their readers expect an argument and anything other will likely confuse them. So D&G do other, and it confuses their readers. They are not giving us a text to trace; rather, they are giving us a text to map.

This assemblage/not-argument works in different ways. It works toward and includes the regular, the explicit, the nameable, signifying, the clearly delineated. It also flees the regular, always leeching into the uncharted, the unnamed or renamed, asignifying, the non-delineated, the implicit (in its latin root sense of being entwined), rats swarming, birds flocking. D&G make clear that an assemblage faces both ways:
One side of a machinic assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.
In my fascination with the wide open, smooth spaces of the rhizome, I forget too often that the rhizome also includes the unified organism, the orderly structures, which emerge from the noise of the rhizome, but which are always pulled back into the noise. There is a voice in the whirlwind, but when it subsides, the whirlwind moves on. There is voice in the whirlwind of "Introduction: Rhizome", but the text is not "closed in upon itself, except as a function of impotence" (8). The text is "elevated to the status of a substantive", an entity in its own right with strata, a kind of organism or signifying totality attributable to a subject (I like the ambiguity here of the term subject, which to me suggests both the authors and their topic.).

The assemblage, then, is two-faced, and most of us dislike two-faced rhetoric. We want people to say what they mean, and mean what they say, but D&G seem to want to have it both ways. Why? Because they know that the connections between language and reality are imprecise and shifting. In a real sense, people can never say precisely what they mean. Likewise, they cannot precisely mean what they say. Language is a tool for mapping approximately, not tracing exactly. In the section about connection and heterogeneity, D&G say:
[N]ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects. (7)
They are messing with our usual notions about language here. First, like any useful map, language leaves out a lot of reality: "not every trait … is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature". So even if we could say exactly what we mean, we can't say all that we mean—unless we mean very, very little—likely too little to note. Then, different languages, or "semiotic chains", map reality differently, or map different realities, bringing "into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." Saying what you mean depends very much on the language that you use. Language is not static and unchanging with firm, explicit linkages to aspects of reality. "Even when linguistics claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about language, it is still in the sphere of a discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power" (7). Finally, D&G rupture the connection between language and reality when they say that "it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects." This is a backhanded way to say what they mean, and perhaps it is a nod on their part to our common notion that our words, signs, reliably point to real things. If there wasn't some dependable connection between words and things, then I would feel very silly writing this post. On the other hand, if the connection between words and things was static and inviolable—as it now is with Latin, for instance—then nothing new could be said (I am no Latin scholar, but I suspect that even Latin is not quite as dead as we think it is).

This helps me understand the two-faced aspect of an assemblage: it is that creative zone of complexity between cold, reliable, striated, fixed order on one hand (the simple/complicated domain of closed systems) and hot, unreliable, smooth, chaotic disorder on the other hand (the chaotic domain of totally open systems). Life thrives in the temperate zone between cold simplicity and hot chaos. This is a two-faced zone, suspended between order and disorder, or any other binary that you choose to name, and it is the dynamic tension of this suspension that enables life. Systems need to be stable enough to function as coherent systems and yet flexible enough to adjust to both internal and external forces and changes inherent in open systems. Resilience requires successful negotiation of this tension between integrity on the one hand and flexibility on the other. It's a balancing act that I find stressful and difficult.

The big rhizo-lesson for me is that everything is an open system—even our Universe is likely an open system within the Multiverse.  Closed systems such as sock drawers, traditional classrooms, and the minds of fundamentalists of all flavors are rare in the Universe, sustained at great cost and power, and always doomed to having their walls breached or to being sealed off and ignored.

D&G neatly capture this tension in the sentence I started this post with: "we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate [italics added] characteristics of the rhizome."  I don't know if the original French words carry the same connotations, but in English I sense a wonderful tension between the juxtaposed terms certain and approximate that I think echoes what D&G are discussing here. This is so two-faced: on the one hand, certain, fixed, absolute knowledge that is beyond doubt, and on the other hand, approximate, inexact, indefinite, loose knowledge that is close to the actual but with plenty of wiggle room. The term certain also resonates with the sense of some but not all, which also works well in this context.

So D&G will arrange for somewhat of an argument for the rhizome, but not all of it. They expect the argument to emerge much like Castaneda's herb garden in the runoff of certain uncertain rains. There are certain points to be made, but they don't make them; rather, they let the points emerge, including points that they didn't know were there.

I think there are lessons here for my writing classes (both composition and literature—one class about one's own writing, the other class about another's writing), and I hope to tease out these lessons by exploring the six characteristics of the rhizome. Of course, I'm reading other things as well, so I may never finish, but if D&G are correct, then I'll never say all of it anyway.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cognition Is a Rhizome

Comments on my last post spoke against applying the rhizome to higher education. I've thought about the objections, but making the rhizome practical still makes sense to me, and really, this blog is all about me trying to make sense of things. Still, the comments gave me pause enough to wonder if others have tried to tease out the practical implications of the rhizome for their own disciplines, so I did a bit of research and found lots of attempts, including this fine article called RHIZOMATIC SYSTEMS & THE EMERGENCE OF INTELLIGENCE (On Slime Mold, Robots and Deleuze & Guattari) (03 May 2005) by Garnet Hertz, who attempts to apply the rhizome to the fields of artificial intelligence, artificial life, information/computer science, and robotics. I think Mr. Hertz provides some interesting ways to proceed, so I will.

Hertz notes that the rhizome has influenced numerous fields of study, but in this article he is interested in the efforts "to construct intelligence apart from a biological substrate" (2), a broad scientific effort which to date has relied mostly on arborescent modes of thought, those tree systems that D&G use in A Thousand Plateaus to contrast with rhizomes. Hertz describes this mode of thought as:
a system that is hierarchical, centered around a core belief, reductivistic, increasingly specialized, non-cyclical, linear, and ripe with segmentation and striation. Similar to a tree-like description of biological evolution or genealogy, arborescent systems start from a central origin and continue to evolve by branching into successively specialized generations. Vertical in nature, the arbolic is ordered, structured and “scientific”: it has a distinct train of thought, a clear inheritance, an order. (1)
This kind of thought and approach has not proven so effective in helping scientists create artificial intelligence. They still cannot create a device, for instance, that can amble across a crowded room without creating chaos, something a cockroach with vastly less computing power than IBM's Deep Blue can accomplish. Why? Because Deep Blue is mostly tracing known pathways, while the cockroach is mapping reality in its infinite variations. And as Hertz notes: "The real world is such a complicated [I prefer the term complex here] system that it is almost impossible to not leave something out while creating an abstraction of it" (8). Yes, Deep Blue can beat anyone at chess, but only because it has enough computing power to cycle through all available possible scenarios and moves, all tracings, very quickly. Deep Blue still couldn't get across an elementary school classroom. Children and cockroaches can—usually.

It may take all the computing power in the universe to enable an arborescent system to walk across a room. Rhizome to the rescue. According to Hertz, rhizomatic systems are:
non-linear, horizontal, nomadic, deterritorialized and heterogeneous. The rhizome cuts across and between the order of vertical space, connecting multiple points simultaneously in a network of nodes. Connected to each other at arbitrary points, the rhizomatic system is more concerned with the multiplicitous interlinking of concept, action and being. Although it lacks a central dogma of a trunk/brain, it is a horizontal, bottom-up system that produces an emergent system of metabehavior that is strong, robust, and intelligent... in the non-standard sense of the word. Within nature, rhizomatic systems like ants or grassy weeds eventually win … If intelligence could exist without a central brain, the rhizome would be it. (1, 2)
You don't need enormous computing power to walk across the room—you just need rhizomatic thought. You need a few simple strategies that map quickly and well as reality emerges around you. Being able to trace all known paths, even very quickly, is almost no help at all; rather, you must be able to map new paths as they emerge. Think birds in a flock, or players on the futbol pitch. Linear, arborescent thought is almost useless here. Fortunately, our brains are rhizomes. As D&G point out: "Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree" (15, ATP).

Hertz insists that "Individual organisms collect together into a swarm of particles that, despite having absolutely no centralized brain, is capable of complex tasks" (4), and offers as proof Toshiyuki Nakagaki's successful efforts in 2000 to teach slime mold to find the shortest path through a maze. "Without any standard cognitive powers, the swarm of slime emerged into a clever mass capable [of] solving the navigational puzzle without a leader, brain, command center, map or plan" (4). It seems likely that our own brains could likewise be described as "a swarm of particles" [neurons] … "without a leader, … command center, map or plan". Hertz could have offered as proof our own brains. There is no homunculus in our brains orchestrating all our mental activity; rather, the brain is a self-organizing swarm, ceasely mapping reality and its own internal resonances, mostly in unconscious ways out of which our conscious knowledge emerges. As I've quoted in this blog before, Olaf Sporns demonstrates that "cognition is a network phenomenon". Cognition is a rhizome.

And rhizomatic cognition trumps arborescent cognition when it comes to mapping and coping with the emergent real. A recent article "Reservoir Computing Properties of Neural Dynamics in Prefrontal Cortex” by Pierre Enel, Emmanuel Procyk, RenĂ© Quilodran, and Peter Ford Dominey in PLOS Computational Biology (June 10 2016) demonstrates that primates, including humans, can learn and cope with novel situations that cannot be anticipated (programmed) by nature. A review of the technical article in Neuroscience says:
This study shows that this seemingly miraculous pre-adaptation comes from connections between neurons that form recurrent loops where inputs can rebound and mix in the network, like waves in a pond, thus called “reservoir” computing. This mix of the inputs allows a potentially universal representation of combinations of the inputs that can then be used to learn the right behaviour for a new situation.
If you have ever watched waves in a pond, then you have watched the rhizome. Arborescent thought cannot map waves in a pond. Or rather, arborescent thought maps waves in a pond the same way a stick figure maps a person. You get the idea, but you would never confuse a stick figure for a person. At least, I hope not. However, you do confuse the map in your mind for the person. We do that all the time. That rhizomatic map seems so full-bodied and multi-dimensional. Of course, the map still isn't the person, but let's save that issue for another post.

So what does this mean for education? First, it does not mean that we should abandon arborescent thought, which has formed the basis of much of Western education and society for at least the last few centuries. Arborescent thought has driven our philosophy, industry, education, and politics, and it has yielded great benefits. Most of us of will never know starvation or homelessness because of arborescent thought. Society has benefitted much from the ability to create and harness machines and processes that trace programmed paths with great precision, speed, and reliability. For instance, I like the linear, arborescent process that makes it possible for me to push a key on my keyboard and the letter z pops up on the screen. Thanks be to the tree.

Arborescent thought can work very well and to great benefit in the simple and complicated domains where explicit, known paths can be traced to given goals. Much of education—to make a point, let's call it training—can be structured this way. Do A and then B, and always get C. Every student should do A and then B, and every student should get C. Those who arrive at C in the allotted amount of time and through their own efforts pass. Those who don't fail and must repeat. This is very much like the industrial form of education that Sir Ken Robinson has so famously attacked, but while arborescent, industrial education has many faults that are becoming increasingly obvious, it does have a kind of efficiency and efficacy. Modern societies are nearly universally literate, if literacy is measured at a fairly low level. This is real, measurable progress when compared to 300 years ago. If we want more, however, then arborescent education is not enough. If we want creative, engaged, resourceful students, and not just barely literate students, then we have to climb down out of the tree of knowledge and step onto the open, grassy plains of the savannah. We can keep the tree for a landmark, for a resting place, but we have to move beyond the arborescent and into the rhizomatic.

We do not have to settle for either one or the other. We can have both: arborescent and rhizomatic. The main point for me, and what I get from reading D&G, is that we should not rely solely on arborescent knowledge, learning, and thought. We must also, even mostly, rely on the rhizome. The ancient Jewish writers told us this centuries ago: pursued alone or above all else, the Tree of Knowledge leads away from the Garden, away from Eden. The dualism of the arborescent separates us from the rhizome. It replaces the right brain with the left, the master with the emissary, to use Iain McGilchrist's terms. From our perch at the top of the Tree of Knowledge, we can see the vast, open plains of grass, and we can be deceived into thinking that we can remain apart from it and master it. The grassy rhizome knows better.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Framing the Rhizome, #rhizo16

I have been writing in this blog about Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome since 2009 and over the past two years with some rhizo scholars in Dave Cormier's MOOCs. Several times I have tried to apply the rhizome to higher education in general and to my discipline, writing and rhetoric, in particular. I think this may be a fine time to try that again as a number of scholars have gathered online for #rhizo16, but that class has been postponed. So what I propose is an exploration of the six characteristics of the rhizome in terms of higher education with a special emphasis on each of our various disciplines.

My good rhizo friend Simon Ensor recently posted a link to a short video entitled Three Minute Theory: What is the Rhizome?, which I think is worth embedding here even though I take issue with a few statements that I will get to in later posts.

As they frame their discussion of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari say wryly, "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome," and the rest of their essay explores six characteristics of that which is difficult to describe:
  1. principles of connection and
  2. heterogeneity,
  3. principle of multiplicity,
  4. principle of asignifying rupture,
  5. principles of cartography and
  6. decalcomania.
D&G bundle the first and last two characteristics together, which should not be ignored, but I start with their framing, such as it is and as if anyone could frame a rhizome. There's a Zen task for you: go frame a rhizome.

Actually, frame is the wrong term—I should use intensity. For me, the most conspicuous intensity in their writing the rhizome is writing itself. Writing and language, in its various forms and expressions, especially the book, resonate with great intensity in "Introduction: Rhizome". As they are restructuring the hierarchies of Western philosophy, D&G are also rewriting Western rhetoric. I suspect this is not an accident; rather, restructuring requires rewriting because the structures that we use to arrange our lives are bound closely to and are co-evolutionary with our language. They are co-emergent—not the same thing, but one is not possible—at least not as it is—without the other. The culture we have constructed depends on our language, which in turn depends on our culture. And like any rhizome, we cannot extricate one bit from the other. For thousands of years, we have been quite adept at writing the hierarchical, tree structures we have lived by. If we are to write the rhizome, then we must write differently—a different language for a different structure. I suspect this writing differently is one of the reasons most people find D&G so difficult to read.

D&G start by disassembling the three pillars of Western rhetoric: the author, the subject matter, and the reader. They smash the author and subject matter in the first paragraph:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied. (A Thousand Plateaus 3)
Since the Greeks began laying the groundwork of Western rhetoric some three thousand years ago, a coherent author and a coherent subject matter have been assumed core principles of effective rhetorical practice. It's still taught in college writing classes today: a clear, coherent voice with a thesis, a point to make about some single topic. This makes sense to us. D&G don't make sense. So who wrote this, D or G? Neither, not even both, but more—a rhizome, a swarm. So to whom do we send the check? assign the blame? award the credit? No one, even though we do anyway "because it's nice to talk like everybody else". What are we talking about? "Everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away". Well, okay … but I'm a coherent reader with a coherent set of beliefs, and I don't know who is talking or what they are talking about.

If you are coherent, you probably won't understand D&G, or worse, you will misunderstand them—mainly because you will insist on making them coherent. If you want to read the rhizome, then you as reader must be as smashed as the authors and topic. You must assume a clever pseudonym—your own name will work—to make yourself unrecognizable in turn and to render imperceptible what makes you act, feel, and think—even to yourself.

Now look over the edge. It's a long way down. Or maybe it's just inches. Distance is such a slippery concept in the rhizome. Jump.

Of course, the rhizome is not the point of "Introduction: Rhizome". It can never be the point. To write the rhizome, the writer, the reader, and the shared topic must all be acentered. Though not mentioned directly in the first paragraph as the authors and topic are, the reader is still there and all three are being acentered—author and topic by inflection, readers by innuendo. Most readers do not respond well to dissolution and loss of identity. Most everything in society points us away from dissolution. We want, need, and demand a clear, self-actualized identity, and we resist attempts to dissolve that identity. We do not want to reach the point where one no longer says I or even the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We do not want to lose ourselves. We have a huge investment here, and this could be worse than the Crash of '29.

And anyway, D&G say/s, "We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own." Isn't this a contradiction? No, not in the rhizome.

When the writer and subject are acentered, then they can assume no position, or can assume any position, right? If you've read D&G, then you see where this is going: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7).

The rhizome is not the point or the subject here. Actually, there is something of a problem with the term subject. Is subject the writer or the topic? Or both. D&G write about the subject:
A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. (3)
Here, subject clearly means the author. Or does it? I don't know if French subject/suget carries this ambiguity, but when we English writing teachers speak of the subject we are referring to the topic of a piece of writing. Perhaps D&G were playing with this ambiguity when they say a few paragraphs later: "There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made. Therefore a book also has no object" (4). Or no subject. It also has no author, or subject. It also has no reader. Well, any point can connect to any other point in a rhizome and must.

Well, this lands us in a difficult place, especially if we want to make sense of the rhizome for higher education, or any education. And D&G note that we have worked hard over the millennia to avoid this place. We have rather studiously avoided writing the rhizome, the voice in the whirlwind, the acentered voice of God and the cosmic microwave background radiation. That way lies insanity and enlightenment—usually indistinguishable. The stars must have patterns, logical patterns about sensible stories that explain things.

So we have written sensible books with roots, D&G say:
A first type of book is the root-book. The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree. This is the classical book, as noble, signifying, and subjective organic interiority (the strata of the book). The book imitates the world, as art imitates nature: by procedures specific to it that accomplish what nature cannot or can no longer do. The law of the book is the law of reflection, the One that becomes two. (5)
We have abstracted the world to create a better image, an image that we can control and use, and we thereby split the world in two. We did God better. God created one world, we created two. And we made ourselves "the beneficent God to explain geological movements" (3). Language was the technology that allowed us to become as gods. It is what separated us from our creation. One view, one position, one author, one topic, one reader.

The second type of book is more intricate, but no less damaging:
The radicle-system, or fascicular root, is the second figure of the book, to which our modernity pays willing allegiance. This time, the principal root has aborted, or its tip has been destroyed; an immediate, indefinite multiplicity of secondary roots grafts onto it and undergoes a flourishing development. This time, natural reality is what aborts the principal root, but the root's unity subsists, as past or yet to come, as possible. We must ask if reflexive, spiritual reality does not compensate for this state of things by demanding an even more comprehensive secret unity, or a more extensive totality. (5, 6)
With the radicle-system, we become inclusive and are fascinated with the sophistication of all those tendrils floating this way and that. We forget that they all return to the root, that we still demand unity. Michel Serres says it best, I think, in his book Genesis (1995):
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
We don't like this semi-being. We want a coherent individual who is a member of a coherent group. We want a unity. We want a unified discipline that we can teach to students we can identify, but as Serres wryly notes, "Nevertheless, we are as little sure of the one as of the multiple" (3). We want the one root or the radicle, but the world keeps presenting us with something else: the rhizome, the cosmic background radiation, the noise, God. Damn.

So here's what I'm proposing: let's frame the rhizome within higher education. What are the implications for our very classes, our curricula, if we take this acentering seriously?

And let me say that I don't think D&G mind us framing the rhizome at all. The rhizome includes tubers and bulbs. It's expected. It's how we make sense of things—we frame it. The issue for D&G, I think, certainly the issue for me, is when we think our frame is all that there is—that the frame is the Truth. It isn't. It's just a frame, a device to help us see better. But we make a big mistake if we forget that the rhizome stretches far beyond and "whistles far and wee".

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Inky Depths of OOO

I want to summarize my thoughts about object oriented ontology (OOO) before returning to the rhizome.

First, I'm pleased with my little side trip, having gained many useful insights, but I am also disappointed. I find at the heart of OOO a concept that stops me: the notion that objects are withdrawn from each other, bound up and isolated in an unapproachable, unknowable substance. This idea has disturbed me since first reading it in Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects (2011), and after rereading the book, I was no happier with it, but I couldn't quite say why. I had run up against my lack of training in philosophy.

Fortunately, Terence Blake left a comment on one of my OOO posts pointing me to his own critiques of OOO. As a trained philosopher, Blake is clearer about the problems with withdrawn objects, and I lean on his work in this post. First, let's look at what Levi Bryant has to say about withdrawn objects.

In the opening chapter of his book, Bryant introduces withdrawal to address the problem of correlationism, or the idea that reality is defined in terms of human knowledge of reality:
In my view, the root of the Modernist schema arises from relationism. If we are to escape the aporia that beset the Modernist schema this, above all, requires us to overcome relationism or the thesis that objects are constituted by their relations. Accordingly, following the ground-breaking work of Graham Harman's object-oriented philosophy, I argue that objects are withdrawn from all relation. The consequences of this strange thesis are, I believe, profound. … [A]ll objects translate one another. Translation is not unique to how the mind relates to the world. And as a consequence of this, no object has direct access to any other object. (26) … [A]ll objects are withdrawn, such that there are no objects characterized by full presence or actuality. Withdrawal is not an accidental feature of objects arising from our lack of direct access to them, but is a constitutive feature of all objects regardless of whether they relate to other objects. (32)
For Bryant, then, any object has access only to the qualities of other objects, but not to the substance of those objects. Furthermore, an object always and necessarily translates those qualities into its own internal schema, translating the perturbations of an object into information that makes sense to itself:
[A]ll objects are operationally closed such that they constitute their own relation and openness to their environment. Relations between objects are accounted for by the manner in which objects transform perturbations from other objects into information or events that select system-states. These information-events or events that select system-states are, in their turn, among the agencies that preside over the production of local manifestations in objects. (31)
It seems to me that Bryant is so interested in preserving the integrity of the objects in his object oriented ontology that he is willing to isolate objects as absolutely discrete entities and to post signs that say Don't touch! This is a trick that does very little for me.

Pluto Seen from New Horizons' Fly-by
Bryant is claiming a coil of volcanic powers (to use his terms) that forms the hidden substance of any object. Other objects, including humans, cannot access this substance directly. Rather, they can only infer this substance from the perturbations that emanate from the object. For me, this is somewhat like the early astronomers who inferred the existence of Pluto "after analyzing perturbations in the orbit of Uranus" (Wikipedia), even though they could not see Pluto. In some sense, then, Pluto was at that time withdrawn from the astronomers, but not in the sense that Bryant seems to say. For Bryant, the real substance of Pluto is always withdrawn. The result is that even as we get closer to Pluto through our technology, OOO can claim that the real Pluto always recedes from us, somewhere into its core, like a squid into its inky depths, as Timothy Morton says it.

Of course, I cannot prove that the substance of Pluto doesn't lie somewhere inside, but if I can never access it, interact with it, or know what it is, then what have I gained by positing it? Moreover, what do I learn about the world by saying that the gravity or iciness of Pluto are some of its qualities but not its substance? If you tell me that there is some absolute reality, but I can never experience it in any way—not physically, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually—then I am at a dead-end with a dead-end belief. Moreover, given that my substance is as withdrawn from Pluto as the substance of Pluto is from me, then Pluto and I can never really engage each other. Finally, no objects can ever engage each other. I can't engage you, you can't engage me. Not really. Rather, our qualities merely perturb one another. I can't even engage myself. Not really. I'm alone and so are you, and we can't even imagine how alone we are. End of story.

Damn, that's depressing.

But then the end of the road with no place left to go is usually depressing and best reserved, I think, for teenagers. Fortunately, I think I can find some ways back to light. I don't think that withdrawal is a completely dark idea that always terminates in the murky depths.

While I don't think that some inaccessible substance lies at the core of all objects, I do accept that no object is completely present to any other object at any one time. Objects always exceed what we can experience or know. I've mentioned this concept before in many posts, but not quite in this way. I have usually said that there is more in the Universe than we will ever know—you know, the Universe being infinite. Now, I'm willing to say that there is more in any object than we will ever know—not because of an inaccessible core that recedes, but because an object emerges, realizing itself within an environment over the arc of its development. New features can emerge in interactions with each new environment, revealing more and more of the object as it continues to unfold. If the object lasts forever, then it will emerge forever, always revealing more.

I picked up this idea from Timothy Morton's book HyperObjects, itself an OOO book so I don't think that Morton makes this same claim about hyperobjects, but that doesn't really matter to me. I'm not so interested in understanding OOO and its various theorists as I am in understanding what I think. I think that I can really experience an object but never completely. For instance, I can really understand and experience my wife, not just the incidental qualities about her; however, I will never understand and experience her completely. I will never, ever be able to capture and reduce her to a completely known and experienced thing. Moreover, as long as I engage and attend to her, there will be more to know and to experience. This is very satisfying to me.

It also isn't object oriented ontology. For me, this idea of withdrawn objects is a show stopper, and I'm genuinely confused about what it provides the object oriented ontologists.

So what is the lesson for education? This: there is more to know and experience about anything and everything than we can ever know or experience. Keep learning. I probably have more to learn about OOO, but I doubt I will focus on it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Inside Out of OOO

As the first of four theses of a flat ontology, Levi Bryant says that object oriented ontology "rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself." So what does this mean for philosophy in general and for higher education in particular?

For philosophy, object oriented ontology makes two key claims, as Bryant details them:
First, humans are not at the center of being, but are among beings. Second, objects are not a pole opposing a subject, but exist in their own right, regardless of whether any other object or human relates to them. Humans, far from constituting a category called “subject” that is opposed to “object”, are themselves one type of object among many. (249)
Hence the title of Bryant's book: The Democracy of Objects. Humans are first and foremost objects among other objects. Do not think that humans are just objects, as that pejorative and diminutive just does not do justice to what Bryant means by the term object. Do not think that Bryant is trying to eliminate the human. He isn't. Humans are full-fledged objects with all the rights pertaining thereunto, and those rights are considerable. First, objects define themselves from the inside out, their substance being the generative powers and capabilities at their core. When speaking of the "virtual proper being" of objects, a concept he develops from Deleuze's study of the virtual, Bryant says:
The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations. (95)
To my mind, this defining from the inside out is most significant, and I envision it most easily in the case of DNA, those "volcanic powers coiled within" each cell of my body and which kickstarted me some 65 years ago and have informed me ever since. My DNA is "that structure and those singularities that endure" as I have undergone "qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations", or my DNA is the energy, information, and organization source that endured as I grew up, matured, and created a life—or became the object I am today.

I differ from Bryant and his flavor of OOO by including my ecosystem. I am comfortable starting any definition of myself with the DNA coiled within my cells, but I don't want to limit my definition to my DNA. For me, any useful definition of me as an object must include the unpacking of my DNA along a particular arc through a particular environment. Bryant distinguishes the "volcanic powers" within from the "qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations", which I'm comfortable with, but then he seems to limit the definition of an object to its withdrawn interior. I reject that as I don't know of any object that exists independently of an ecosystem; thus, defining an object independently of its ecosystem seems ultimately pointless to me. Defining ONLY from the inside out is as problematic for me as defining ONLY from the outside in, which is what all dictionaries do.

My reading of Edgar Morin's concept of complexity convinces me that I can understand an object only if I understand the exchange of matter, energy, information, and organization between that object and the objects in its surround. Yes, an object (even a rock) has inherent, internal powers that are necessary for defining that rock, but they are not sufficient.

I think this concept of the withdrawn object may be a show-stopper for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

What must stuff be like for us to learn?

In my last post, I discussed how object-oriented ontology, as a part of the Copernican Progression, is moving humans from the center of the universe to a position on the periphery. Simon Ensor and Sarah Honeychurch raised some valid challenges to OOO, and I want to explore them.

In the concluding chapter of his book The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant lists four theses of flat ontology, which I think summarizes his take on object-oriented ontology, which:
  1. "rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself."
  2. "signifies that the world or the universe does not exist."
  3. "refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation."
  4. "argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects." (245-246)
I want to write a post about each point, but in this post, I'll talk about Bryant's reason for positing object-oriented ontology, about which he is quite clear: he wants to remove humans from the center of philosophy. He does not, however, want to remove humans altogether from philosophy, an objective he considers silly. Rather, he wants to posit humans as one object among all other objects—sometimes the most important object, but not always.

Starting in Chapter One, "Grounds for a Realist Ontology", Bryant claims that too many Western thinkers since the Enlightenment have adopted a correlationist episteme that assumes that being can only be thought of in terms of our access to being, or knowledge of being, rather than in terms of being in itself:
As such, ontology becomes not an interrogation of being as such, but rather an interrogation of our access to being. The answer to the question, “what is being?” now, everywhere and always, carries a footnote, colophon, or bit of fine print such that the question must be read as “what is being for us?” (35)
Consequently, and unfortunately for Bryant, questions about being in itself become meaningless. First, the modern argument goes, if we know something about the being of an object, then obviously we have access to that object, which reverts the question back to being for us. Second, to know some-thing requires that we have access to that thing, again reverting the question back to being for us. Thus, any questions about being become questions about what we can know about being. Epistemology trumps ontology.

As I was reading Bryant's complaint, I realized that I am an unconscious correlationist. I do not intuitively think and talk about being apart from my knowledge of being. In other words, talking about the being of things that I don't know about seems to me like school kids arguing politics on the playground. Still, Bryant has given me pause to think, and for that I am grateful. Let's see how.

First, he establishes for me that the being of an object in no way depends on my knowing that object. When I encounter an object, that object is always already there, a deceptively simple statement of the obvious: the object always brings its being to the encounter. My knowing the object, encountering the object, does not constitute the object's being. The object is a fact; it is not my fiction, though I invariably create a fiction out of it. Bryant opens his chapter with a wonderful quote from Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France which captures this independence of being better than I have:
Things-in-themselves? But they're fine, thank you very much. And how are you? You complain about things that have not been honored by your vision? You feel that these things are lacking the illumination of your consciousness? But if you missed the galloping freedom of the zebras in the savannah this morning, then so much the worse for you; the zebras will not be sorry that you were not there, and in any case you would have tamed, killed, photographed, or studied them. Things in themselves lack nothing, just as Africa did not lack whites before their arrival.
So far, I'm comfortable with OOO, as are most people, for as Bryant notes even staunch correlationists concede that objects exist whether or not humans know about them; however, correlationists argue that since we have no access to things for themselves, then the issue is moot. For OOO, however, this is the core issue. So how do we speak about things that we cannot access, things in themselves and for themselves?

Here, Bryant turns to a discussion of Roy Bhaskar's ontology as developed in his book A Realist Theory of Science. Bhaskar begins with a simple question: "What must the world be like for science to be possible?" Bryant claims that this is a question about ontology and not about epistemology as Bhaskar is not asking what the mind must be like for science to be possible. Can we make reasonable speculations about the state of the world to which we have little or perhaps no direct access? Bhaskar and Bryant say we can and do.

Bryant makes several key speculations about what objects must be like in order for this world to make sense to us humans, especially scientific sense:
  • Objects are "generative mechanisms" (Bhaskar's term) capable of producing effects, qualities, events, or actualities that other objects can perceive and interact with. Indeed, Bryant claims that "Objects … are defined not by their qualities or events, but rather by their powers or capacities" (68). 
  • "objects must be capable of behaving differently in open and closed systems" (67): Most experiments (as well as most traditional classrooms) aim for closed/simple domains where an experimenter can reliably trigger an object's particular generative powers (say, shine a light of a particular bandwidth or get a student to read a particular text) while controlling the effects of other objects (say, preventing light of different bandwidths or students reading different texts or no text). However, 99.9999% of the time, objects exist in the open/complex domain where the object's generative powers may remain dormant despite the proximity of a known, active stimulus, or the object's effects and qualities may be cancelled or obscured by the effects of other objects. In short, the simple, reductionist cause/effect or stimulus/response demonstrated in the closed/simple domain of a laboratory or classroom does not necessarily hold in the open/complex domain of the world.
  • "objects … must be distinguished from events or actualities" (68): Given that objects can and do behave differently in closed and open systems, then Bryant insists that we cannot conflate the object, the generative mechanism, with its effects or qualities, which hearkens back to Aristotle's distinction between a substance and its accidents. Bryant claims that the substance of an object is always withdrawn, inaccessible to all other objects, including the object itself, which can only engage the effects or qualities of an object. For me, this creates a black hole at the heart of all objects, including myself. We can sense and engage the gravitational pull (effects) of the black hole object, but we cannot see inside. This disturbs me.
  • "objects … must be independent of their relations" (68): Given that objects can be isolated within closed/simple domains, then for Bryant it follows that objects are not defined by their relationships to other objects. He does not deny that objects do, in fact, usually exist in relationships to other objects, but that they can be removed from those relationships; thus, they "must be independent of their relations" (68).
I admit that I was not at all comfortable with this line of thinking at first, and I'm still not altogether happy, but I am warming to it. I am certainly grateful to Bryant for helping me think differently, as uncomfortable as that sometimes was for me. Still, I think I can get to my issues by applying Bryant's OOO to the classroom. Bryant tends to be very abstract, and I think better with things and pictures.

Let's start with Bhaskar's original question, reframed for education: what must the world be like for learning to be possible? Note that this is not a question about learning, or epistemology, but a question about ontology, what the world is like. I will have to do a serious review later, but it seems to me that most learning theories do not ask this question. A handy overview of learning theories from the Texas Tech University School of Pharmacy says:
  • Constructivism focuses on how we construct our own understanding of the world, adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.
  • Behaviorism focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities, defining learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviors.
  • Piaget focuses on the process by which the developing child builds cognitive structures such as mental maps, schemes, or networked concepts for understanding and responding to physical experiences within his or her environment, moving from a few innate reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities.
  • Learning styles theories focus on the fact that individuals perceive and process information in very different ways, implying that learning has more to do with whether the educational experience is geared toward a student's particular style of learning than whether or not they are smart.
  • Multiple intelligence theories suggest there are multiple ways that people have of perceiving and understanding the world, each a distinct intelligence or set of skills allowing individuals to find and resolve genuine problems they face.
I could go on with the various brain-based approaches, Wegner's communities of practice, Glassner's control theory, Siemen's and Downes' connectivism, observational learning, Vygotsky's social cognition theories, but the point is that all these learning theories start with epistemology rather than ontology, or in the aberrant case of behaviorism, with observable changes in human and animal behavior. Perhaps this focus is to be expected—after all, we are talking about learning—but we might ask: what if they started with an understanding of what the world must be like for learning to occur, rather than blindly assuming that there is stuff out there that we can learn? What must that stuff out there be like for us to learn it? This just might be an important question. Likely there is a learning theory that starts with ontology or at least includes it, and I just don't know about it. If so, please leave a comment and a link.

If we follow Bryant's argument, for us to learn about something, then that something must have generative powers "capable of producing effects, qualities, events, or actualities" that we can interact with at some scale. This is tricky and subtle, I think. Of course stars, rocks, water, and trees are objects that produce effects (colors, textures, fields, etc.) that we can interact with and learn about, but what about democracy or Harry Potter? OOO says that Harry Potter has ontological status equal to that of rocks, stars, or me, a living human. Like rocks, political parties, and Volkswagens, Harry Potter produces effects that we humans can learn about. Hmm … that might rearrange the order of being for some teachers.

Then, because objects behave differently in closed and open systems—in simple and complex domains—what we can learn depends on whether or not we interact with a rock or Harry Potter in the closed, simple domain of a traditional classroom or a textbook or in the open, complex domain of the world, which is where rocks and Harry Potter spend 99.99% of their time. I think both domains have unique potentials for learning, but they are not the same potentials. This reminds me of how I structure my soccer practices, always beginning a practice in small, constrained spaces to focus on a single skill, but then opening the space until by the end of practice, the players are again in the full, open field. Who knew that OOO would provide rationale for that kind of training? This also helps me understand more about why the community as curriculum works so well for me and some others who want learning released into the wide world, at least some of the time. There are real, valid things you can learn in the wide, open world that you just cannot learn in a constrained, closed classroom.

Because objects behave differently, producing different effects and qualities in closed and open domains, then OOO says we must distinguish their generative powers from their qualities and effects. And while we have access to—can learn about—an object's effects, the generative mechanisms and powers that form the substance of an object are withdrawn from us. I can learn the colors, shapes, and chemical composition of rocks and the physical, social, and literary characteristics of Harry Potter, but the generative mechanism at the heart of a rock or Harry Potter withdraws from me.

This hidden heart of things still disturbs me, but mostly only in the human domain. I want to believe that I can know another and be known in return—my wife and I, for instance. However, OOO says I can know and be known only in part—valentine cards and love letters notwithstanding. Perhaps my resistance is vertigo, the result of standing at the edge of a black hole and looking over, my body rebelling at letting go.

Or I may be interpreting Bryant too harshly, and perhaps he is not isolating all things in their own little black hole bubbles; rather, perhaps he is saying there is more to any rock or fictional character than any other rock, fictional character, or human can ever experience and know. For instance, he quotes Jane Bennett, who in her 2010 book Vibrant Matter speaks of viewing a particular collection of objects in the street: "In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics" (5). Later, Bryant himself says: "The virtual proper being of objects consists not of qualities, but of powers and these powers are never exhausted by local manifestations. In this regard, there is never a complete mapping of any phase space, but rather only ever a limited mapping of a phase space dependent on the exo-relations into which the object has been placed" (121).

Well, you see how Bryant writes. I think he is saying that the substance of a rock or Harry Potter is not its collection of qualities (color, hardness, roundness or flatness of character, etc) but its powers to produce those qualities, and its powers to produce always exceed whatever qualities it produces in any given situation. In other words, there is always more to know about anything. Now, that's an idea I can support. I can learn somethings about rocks inside a volcano that I will not learn from rocks on the Moon. There is no little postcard collection of facts—which too often comprises traditional curricula—which captures all there is to know about anything. Nothing I can say about a thing ever completely maps or exhausts that thing. The map is not the land.

Now, most educators will likely agree that no teaching covers everything, but most students probably don't get that message. Rather, when they turn the page in the history text, they assume they know all they need to know about Julius Caesar, and they are done with him. This is an awful lesson to learn when even the most stubborn, dense rock is an inexhaustible font of knowledge. We can study anything to death, and the thing will continue to reveal long after we have lost interest. All teachers everywhere should rejoice.

Finally—and I apologize for this being such a long post—Bryant says that objects are not reducible to their relations. Rather, there is something at the core of everything that is absolutely independent of everything else, defining itself solely in terms of its generative powers. At least, this is how I'm interpreting Bryant, and I find this most egregious. I don't like it. First, because I don't know of anything that is absolutely independent of its relations to other things—well, maybe neutrinos which appear to pass through the Earth and everything else unperturbed and not perturbing anything else. Or almost. We have found ways to detect them, and that can happen only through perturbations, or effects. And neutrinos do not exist by themselves but as a result of some nuclear process such as radioactive decay or nuclear reactions. Consider Latour's parable about the zebras that I started with above. The zebras may not need us humans, but they do need each other and the African savannahs. There is no zebra without relationship to something.

I think I understand why Bryant wants to define an object ontologically only by its internal, generative powers. I, too, have argued for definition from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. When forced, however, I realize that I want to define an object from both directions as an evolving dialogic. The inside-out is in constant juxtaposition to the outside-in, and through a range of interactions between the two, energy, matter, information, and organization from one object constantly perturb and restructure the other object in a causal loop, so that the constitution of each evolves and changes the perturbations between them, which leads to more changes, and so on.

Bryant seems to agree that objects do have relations with other objects and are changed by those relations, but he insists that this does not define either object. Perhaps he is working hard here to protect and preserve the integrity of the object against any abuse from the outside. I have a kind of sympathy, but I don't see the advantage. I also don't think it's realistic. While an object can change any given relation with any given object, it does not follow for me that an object can exist independently of all relationships. For me, all objects are in a web of relationships with other objects, and they are defined both by what internal powers they bring to those relationships and by what perturbations those relationships bring to them. We can learn about a rock or Harry Potter, then, because they have an integrity of being in relationship with other objects with their own integrity and relationships.

Well, that took longer than I thought, but I am pleased that OOO has led me along some unfamiliar paths. Maybe you, too?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Copernican Progression and OOO

In a Facebook conversation a few weeks ago, Sarah asked why I was reading this dense object oriented stuff. I didn't have an immediate answer, but now I think I'm sticking with it because it helps me understand better some of the writers I have enjoyed so much over the past few years: Deleuze and Guattari, Morin, and Serres. It also helps me understand actor-network theory much better.

I've just finished a first reading of Levi Bryant's book The Democracy of Objects (2012), but along the way, I made a connection with Brian Greene's 2011 book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (I'm a most haphazard scholar, always with multiple books underway). As he is concluding his quite speculative exploration of the concept of the multi-verse, Greene says that the notion that ours might be just one, rather ordinary universe among an infinity of universes continues a 500-year Copernican progression that with each iteration has moved humanity further and further from the privileged center of reality. Greene says it more elegantly:
Over the course of nearly five centuries, the Copernican progression has been a dominant theme. From the rising and setting of the sun to the motion of constellations across the night sky to the leading role we each play in our mind’s inner world, experience abounds with clues suggesting that we’re a central hub around which the cosmos revolves. But the objective methods of scientific discovery have steadily corrected this perspective. At nearly every turn, we’ve found that were we not here, the cosmic order would hardly differ. We’ve had to give up our belief in earth’s centrality among our cosmic neighbors, the sun’s centrality in the galaxy, the Milky Way’s centrality among the galaxies, and even the centrality of protons, neutrons, and electrons – the stuff of which we’re made – in the cosmic recipe. There was a time when evidence contrary to long-held collective delusions of grandeur was viewed as a frontal assault on human worth. With practice, we’ve gotten better at valuing enlightenment.
It seems to me that object oriented ontology is part of this progression, which I frame generally as the emergence of complexity thinking. Ian Bogost makes this clear in an early, 2009 attempt to define OOO for ordinary folk:
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter, for example. In particular, OOO rejects the claims that human experience rests at the center of philosophy, and that things can be understood by how they appear to us [highlight added for emphasis].
It seems that OOO wants to remove human experience from "the center of philosophy", denying that "things can be understood by how the appear to us." So first we lose our place at the center of the universe, and now we lose our place at the center of that most human of human activities: wondering what the hell this universe is all about. If OOO is correct, then we humans are no longer the true subjects of the Universe. Rather, we are just one more object among all the other objects, and if we were to vanish, then the Universe/s would miss us no more than it would miss tardigrades, kaolin, or I Love Lucy reruns. This is a serious humility check. Or checkmate.

In The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant explains it this way:
[F]lat ontology [one of Bryant's several terms for object oriented ontology] refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation. To be sure, flat ontology readily recognizes that humans have unique powers and capacities and that how humans relate to the world is a topic more than worthy of investigation, yet nothing about this establishes that humans must be included in every inter-object relation or that how humans relate to objects differs in kind from how other entities relate to objects. (246)
I'm still digesting this idea, and I must say that something about it disturbs me, but let me start with what pleases and resonates well with me.

First, almost unconsciously, I have accepted the Copernican Progression, especially as expressed in complexity studies. To my mind, the simple and complicated human domains are the rare exceptions providing some insight and knowledge and respite from the storm but that ultimately are too restricted and reduced. Most of the world lies in the wider, complex domain with frequent interruptions by the chaotic, and the more we learn about our complex world, the more we see that we humans are but one small part—almost infinitesimally small—and that to understand this world, then we must examine all the objects in our environment. It resonates well with me that all objects have equal ontological status and that no object, including humans, determines the existence of other objects.

This doesn't mean that objects, especially humans, do not create new objects, or cause new objects to come into existence.  J. K. Rowling, for instance, did create the object Harry Potter; however, once Harry became an object, then he had to find his own space within the literary and social ecosystems. My automobile was created by Honda, but once released, the car has had to find its own place in my life and in the ecosystem of Macon, Georgia, USA. Treating the car as merely my object, defined totally by my ownership, is to ignore the ecological, informational, social relationships that the car forms whether I own it or not. I cannot reduce the car to my ownership of it. That is too narrow a view.

Of course, I cannot ignore my ownership either. So OOO does not eliminate the human from consideration, and it even concedes that in many situations on Earth humans are prominent, even dominant, actors. But in 99.999…% of the Universe, humans are absent, thoroughly inconsequential and profoundly insignificant. It seems some humility is in order, though I don't really expect it.

This removal of the human from the "center of philosophy" helps me understand better the actor-network approach to scholarship that I've engaged in over the past year with my various rhizo swarms. Bruno Latour, one of the founders of ANT, gives this shift in thinking an ethical tone in his essay "Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts" (1992):
To balance our accounts of society, we simply have to turn our exclusive attention away from humans and look also at nonhumans. Here they are, the hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality. They knock at the door of sociology, requesting a place in the accounts of society as stubbornly as the human masses did in the nineteenth century. What our ancestors, the founders of sociology, did a century ago to house the human masses in the fabric of social theory, we should do now to find a place in a new social theory for the nonhuman masses that beg us for understanding.
I like this egalitarian approach to thinking, but this brings me, I think, to the rub. As soon as I start thinking about cars, poems, or multiple-universes, I seem to slide back into the center of philosophy. Perhaps I am not yet disciplined or sophisticated enough to think of objects in their own rights.