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.


  1. Please continue your OOO explorations. You and this blog as object have influenced my own explorations of being and becoming. A feasting of A & W onion rings and my desire for meaning in the cosmos. I don't get the connections though they exist. What understanding do nonhumans beg for? Are we just projecting are humanness remaining in the center of philosophy? What are we to objects? Nothing. And yet. They are without desire. An entire cosmos indifferent to our search for meaning in it. Star dust. Carbon copies. I don't get it but am intrigued by the ideas offered here.

    1. Thanks, Barry. Favor the A&W onion rings as they have much more heft as objects. And perhaps onion ring do have desires, at least I find it in keeping with speculative realism to speculate about the desires of onion rings. It may not be factual, but it certainly makes for a more interesting and lively universe. And anyway, it's always nice to be the object of desire, and an onion ring is about my speed these days. I suspect I will keep writing about this for a bit more as I'm still unsettled.

  2. Isn't there a fatal flaw in OOO thinking? To think that we are NOT central is to accept that we do think that we are NOT...and language orders chaos more than chaos unravels order.

    1. I guess that as humans we have our (intersubjective) lens to order the world, other rational beings might order it differently?

    2. I think you touch directly on the issue that bothers me, Simon. I am suspicious that some trick lies at the heart of OOO, a language trick that I haven't quite figured out yet. The only way I know to move language from the center is through language itself, and something about that smells a bit off. Or maybe it's a zen thing. I'll have to meditate on this a bit more, but thanks for thinking with me.

  3. Hi Keith,

    Well - if it helps you, that's sufficient reason. I'm happy never to understand ANT (more than to suspect that John Law is fairly similar to D's metaphysics). I also found when I looked at some of that OOO stuff that it was based on writers such as Heidegger, and it made more sense for me to look at the original sources in that case. So I'm grappling with D on Leibniz, now Hume - Spinoza next I fear. Each to their own ...

    Anyway, reading this post I found this out of tune with my thinking:

    "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."

    Is this really a surprise? As someone who grew up with Doctor Who and Star Trek, and never paid much attention to the Bible or Sunday sermons, it never seemed plausible to me that humans should be singled out for special status. I do think, by the way, That I got a much better deal learning this from James T and Jean Luc than from reading any philosophical writings about this ;)

  4. Thanks, Sarah. As you often do, you are anticipating an upcoming post from me: something about why human experience is not the center of philosophy or the Universe/s. Of course, the core story of most religions is that we humans are the apple of God's eye, and OOO moves away from those stories, but Bryant and Bogost at least do not frame their argument against religion but rather against what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism: the idea "that humans cannot exist without the world nor the world without humans" which they claim lies at the heart of most modern philosophy with its often unstated grounding in epistemology rather than ontology. I am not well-read enough in modern philosophy to know if their criticism is fair or not—perhaps they are merely tilting at windmills—but I'm beginning to make sense of their argument.

    And yes, I suspect that Dr. Who's story gets us out of our comfortable w/tomb, especially if we don't think about it.

    1. I suspect that's an unfair generalisation - certainly I think it would not apply to D&G. There might be an emphasis on concentrating on epistemological questions (though I am not sure that there is), but the claim that "that humans cannot exist without the world nor the world without humans" just seems a strong one to make, and I can't think of where it would come from

  5. Thanks, Sarah. I share your suspicions here, and I'll write a post about this shortly.