Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Viscosity of Rhizo14

This has been a difficult post to write as I have struggled to get my head into and around the idea of object oriented ontology as Timothy Morton presents it in his 2013 book Hyperobjects, but I at last think I have some clarity. I hope that I've removed most of my mistakes from this post.

In Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton studies objects that are very large relative to humans—objects such as global warming, black holes, the human genome, trash, and nuclear effluvia deposited into the environment since 1945—not because they are special, but because their monstrous size makes obvious some characteristics of objects that are usually obscured in objects our own size: cars, books, chairs, watermelons, smartphones, and other people.

This clarity rendered by a shift in scale is not at all unusual. The two fundamental 20th century revolutions in science—relativity and quantum—came about in part because we at last had the technology, mathematics, and science to peer into infinitely large spaces and into infinitesimally small spaces, and when we did, we saw that reality was not structured as we had thought. At the human scale, most of us still intuitively believe and behave as if Newtonian physics rules the universe and that relativity and quantum weirdness are special cases. They are not. They are the norm, and the world is weird all the way through, but most of the time, we can ignore that weirdness and still make it to our jobs on time. Morton assumes, then, that looking at objects massively distributed across space and time will reveal characteristics of objects in general that we might not otherwise see.

The first characteristic of objects that Morton discusses is viscosity. He insists that objects are always closer to us than they appear and that they stick to us. This viscosity is usually not obvious at the human scale. For instance, I'm looking now at a chair across the room from where I'm writing, and I see separation between me and that chair. I do not feel that it is sticking to me or that I am sticking to it, but Morton says that the chair and I are entangled and remain entangled despite any distance between us. This entanglement has a viscous quality about it that is obscured at the human scale but becomes obvious at the scale of hyperobjects.

For instance, Morton says that the hyperobject global warming is always already here in our faces—literally, physically in our faces—whether or not we are immediately conscious of it. Even on those cold days when we walk through snow, global warming presses in on us, entombs and enwombs us. Morton writes:
I do not access hyperobjects across a distance, through some transparent medium. Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space. Like faces pressed against a window … Every day, global warming burns the skin on the back of my neck, making me itch with physical discomfort and inner anxiety. … As I reach for the iPhone charger plugged into the dashboard, I reach into evolution, into the extended phenotype that doesn’t stop at the edge of my skin but continues into all the spaces my humanness has colonized. (Kindle Locations 528-534)
I can see this looming stickiness rather easily in objects such as global warming and evolution, but not so well in the chair across from me. For that, I have to fight against an intuitive sense of reality that plainly demonstrates that the chair and I are distinct and that I act on the chair and it does not act on me. I am the subject, and it is the object. I do not feel the viscous honey between us. When I'm out of the house, I don't see the imprint of my body in the chair cushion, I don't feel the chair against my back. I don't think of the chair. So are the chair and I really sticking to each other? And what is this stickiness, this viscosity?

First, this stickiness is not an aspect of human cognition. It's there, Morton says, between objects whether or not humans are involved or even aware. And when we humans do become aware of the viscosity between objects, then it has something of the uncanny and daemonic about it. And one doesn't have to be a believer in the spirit world to believe in this "spooky action at a distance," as Einstein called it (though one doesn't have to exclude the spirit world, either). Rather, we only need believe in gravitational and electromagnetic fields to see what Morton is talking about:
What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity. We haven’t thought this way about things since the days of Plato. What Ion and Socrates call a daimon, we call electromagnetic waves, which amplify plucked guitar strings and broadcast them through a PA system. (Kindle Locations 563-570)
This viscosity, then, is for me like a field, or a mesh of fields, that emanate from objects, extending their reach and connections beyond the visually obvious to enfold them into each other, and into me—think gravitational fields that extend from one end of the universe to the other. This means, literally and physically, that the black hole hyperobject at the center of our galaxy impinges on me and I slightly on it and that causalities flow like electricity, or gravity, across the fields between the black hole and me. Of course, my everyday senses are not sensitive enough to pick up the perturbations of this hyperobject, but let that black hole move or explode, and all hell will break loose. Literally. Morton says that all objects from quanta to galaxies have this viscous connection with all other objects.

I have to ease into this. I need an image, so let's start with a small pond that will represent our known world. Now float two round objects of roughly equal size on opposite sides of the pond and start them bobbing at about the same rates. You can see the waves emanating from each object, spreading across the pond, until they reach the other object. Each object is now aware of the other in whatever way those objects can be aware. The waves represent the gravitational, electro-magnetic, spatial, and temporal fields of each object, and they are the boundaries across which the objects exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with each other. In other words, each object experiences and knows the other object through the waves—regardless of distance, whether close or far apart.

It's easy to see in this simple pond how the waves of each object perturb the waves of the other object, how each object causes effects in the other object regardless of distance, near or far. The objects are entangled, and given that they are only two, they are acutely aware of each other. Of course, our pond is not so simple, so add lots more objects to the pond, some really big and really small, some bobbing a billion times per second and others one bob per million years. Set the objects in motion, some attracting, some repelling so that all are in constant motion. Now look at the waves. The surface of the pond is a gaussian blur, all the waves running into other waves, colliding, propagating, dampening, amplifying. Our original two objects are entangled with more things than they can distinguish, but—and this is the point here, I think—they are still entangled with each other even though they can hardly tell which waves emanate from what object. According to object oriented ontology, our universe looks like this.

Let's start again with you and me alone in a museum gallery. I see you across the gallery. Rather, I see the light reflecting in waves from your form in an electro-magnetic field. Your gravitational field also tugs on me, though it is washed out in my awareness by the immensely larger tug of the Earth. I hear you moving about as sound wafts toward me, about us, connecting us, and energy, information, and organization are shared across the fields between us, affecting our behaviors. I might move to maintain a preferred distance to you, organizing myself in relation to you and all the other objects in the room. Imagine that I find you threatening, repellent in some way. I might flee the gallery, but according to object oriented ontology, we are still entangled. I am stained though I might mask the stain with other sights and sounds later.

Or imagine that I find you attractive in some way. I might move close enough to engage in conversation, a close field across which we might share matter in the form of spittle, bacteria, odors, touch (this kind of causal exchange is so obvious during flu season). We exchange matter, energy, information, and organization across the viscous fields enfolding us. The intensity of the exchange, of course, varies with proximity, but according to OOO and modern physics, it never fades completely. I am always entangled with you even though the perturbations of your field become so tenuous and smudged as to be indistinct, washed out.

So can I safely ignore those rarefied, smudged traces and stains that you left in my brain and body? Not really. Modern complexity theory shows us that complex systems are acutely sensitive to initial conditions, which can amplify, or dampen, small perturbations across a mesh of interacting fields. Thus, as Edward Lorenz says, the beating of a butterfly's wings in Africa can lead to a hurricane next month in Florida. This is perhaps poetic hyperbole, but it points to a tested and verified characteristic of objects within a web. It really is spooky action at a distance, and as novelists have long known, even the most casual meeting can have huge causal effects.

Now, add more people to the gallery until the room is almost full and start a fire in another part of the museum. We are both now part of a panicked mob, a hyperobject, swept away, perhaps crushed, in its force field.

Okay, for the sake of argument, let's say that this is a reasonably accurate view of reality, that objects really behave this way with each other. What are the practical consequences? For instance, what can I know and say about Rhizo14 and other such online events that I did not know and could not say before?

First, as Morton cites Lacan as saying, "There is no metalanguage." There is no outside point of view from which to determine what other things are. We are all in the pond. Thus, my pond image above is quite misleading as it demands that we stand on the banks of the pond to view the waves of objects bobbing on the two-dimensional surface of the pond. There are no banks where we can stand, there is no two-dimensional surface. The waves are all coming at us—some at the speed of light—no matter which way we turn, multi-dimensional, multi-scalar. As Morton says, we are intra-uterine and inter-uterine, enwombed, and there is no nice doctor in a white lab coat outside to explain what's happening from his objective point of view. Everything presses in on us from every side and time, and we cannot get away from it. There is no away, as we are beginning to learn as we struggle to put our radioactive waste somewhere safe, somewhere away. The radioactive waste is still here in utero with us and will remain here about 24,000 more years—a damned eternity for most of us.

This means for me there is no outside point of view from which to determine what Rhizo14 is. I can only write from the inside, and this changes everything I know about writing, as I have been schooled in the Western rhetorical tradition which posits a single, objective, authoritative subject that speaks apart from and passes judgement upon objects under consideration. This is why I have been so attracted to a swarm voice which decenters my authority, my outside booming voice, and speaks from inside, from many points of view. I think that the swarm can say things that cannot be said from outside.

By the way, I readily recognize the affordances of the outside, objective point of view, and I am not arguing that we should abandon it. As I've said before, it is a useful fiction, like my pond image, and like my pond image, it is ultimately misleading. Rather, I want to complement the objective voice with an inside swarm voice that can say other things. I'm also not clear yet about what those other things are, but I sense them emerging in our swarm sessions.

Next, we must think of all objects as actors acting upon other objects and being acted upon by other objects within a mesh of interacting fields. If we want to understand Rhizo14, then we have to understand not only principal humans such as facilitator Dave Cormier, but also all the other participants, lurkers, prodigals, technologies, memes, organizational structures, and more. This is a noisy swelter that defies total clarity, but we have to be aware that Rhizo14 is a swelter. We can focus on some specific aspects of Rhizo14—say the use of Google Docs—but we can never forget that Google Docs is an object in its own right that seeks and expresses its own position within the complex system of Rhizo14, just as I did, just as Dave did, just as all the other objects did. In practice, this means we can all study Rhizo14 for the remainder of our professional careers and never exhaust it. It's that complex and that rich. This radically undermines our drive for total and complete mastery of a topic, a drive necessary for getting through graduate school, but I've become very happy to let this fiction lapse. Should I live forever, I can study forever. I'll never exhaust the kaleidoscope. Rather, I'll become bored with it and move on to a new one. And there's always a new one. Hallelujah!

There are more practical consequences, but this post is already long, so I'll end by pointing out the disorienting view of objects that OOO leaves us with: on the one hand, objects zoom in to loom over us, against us, across any distance, while on the other hand, they recede from us, never ultimately knowable, always somewhat hidden in mystery. This effect is captured in the old adage that the more I know, the more I know that I don't know. I think this disorientation results from a couple of characteristics of objects and our knowledge of objects. First, we always disturb, perturb the objects we see, thus changing them and us however slightly. Engagement changes all engaged. Making proximate makes an object approximate. Our knowledge is always uncertain: we can know with certainty either the position or velocity of a single particle, but not both. When we focus on one aspect of an object, other aspects of the object recede out of focus. If we focus on those aspects, we lose focus of the first. When we focus on an object, we become part of that object, entangled in ways that change it and us. Viewing or not viewing a photon can make it choose to be a particle or a wave. Viewing or not viewing objects in Rhizo14 can make them behave differently. This is why we have to keep studying and writing: we never get it quite right, we never exhaust it. We just get tired.

I'm tired now, so I'll write more later. But did you notice how difficult it has been to get away from Rhizo14? Sticky business, that. Objects are like that. All of them.


  1. Energy grows where attention goes

    1. Yes, Autumm. That's another aspect of this entanglement among objects.

    2. Worth the effort to continue with a Long Read, many thanks. A few phrases jumped out for me:

      Engagement changes all engaged
      a swarm voice which decenters my authority
      I'll never exhaust the kaleidoscope

      A poetic summary...

      Thanks, Fred

  2. Keith, your musing as very entangled with my own journey. I'll need some time to let this sink in. The ideas are very clear here. The waves are washing over me.

  3. Thanks for swimming with me, Barry. Let me know what you think.


    A reflection.

  5. I don't yet see where this OOO is more than "old wine in new bags".

    New words like "entangled", okay ... but, that's it?

    Our bodies, minds have no clear boundaries, neither do objects have ... but that's nothing new as a concept. Just consider what happens with every breath.