Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Object Oriented Ontology and the Withdrawn Being

As a way of understanding actor-network theory (ANT), I'm reading into object oriented ontology (OOO), starting with Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects, which I think will help me explain why ANT tends to place both human and non-human objects on an equal ontological basis. I started this reading with my last post after a three month hiatus, but I don't think I wrote so well. In a comment to that post, Maha Bali said that she felt over her head with the resulting conversation. This suggests to me that I did not write well, for when bright people can't figure out what you've said, then you haven't said it well enough.

Then a day or so later, Maha wrote a beautiful post called Because Virtual is also Real that captures so much better than I did where I'm going with OOO. She begins her post this way:
Irvin Yalom reminds us of the complexity of human beings. Since categorization allows us “neither [to] identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcend category” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185). In life, as in research, we often use categorization to support our analysis, but we should never forget that this categorization is constructed and even imposed, and there is much more that lies beyond it, and we must realize that “the other is never fully knowable” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185′ the book is called Love’s Executioner)
This is the heart of the matter: no object—including other humans—is fully knowable by another object—including other humans. All objects are complex, and all have an integrity of being that is not fully knowable by or accessible to any other object. This integrity (I like this word at the moment, but it may not be exactly right) of the object places all objects on an equal ontological footing, equally inaccessible. Each object exists in its own right, under its own magic, so to speak. Ontology, then, is not reducible to epistemology, or said another way: what a thing is cannot be reduced to or fully captured by what another thing knows of it and says of it or how another thing interacts with it.

I am not suggesting that Maha was blogging about object-oriented ontology. She wasn't. Rather, she was mostly talking about how virtual relationships can be as valid as actual relationships, in large part because neither kind of relationship fully reveals the other person to us. Thus, both kinds of relationships provide limited, though still valid relationships. Even though Maha may not have been thinking about object-oriented ontology at all, she captures it better than I did in my post. For instance, she captures in a practical way OOO theorist Timothy Morton's point in his book Hyperobjects (2013), where he discusses the shared characteristics of hyperobjects, which "are nonlocal; in other words, any 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject" (Kindle Locations 113-114).
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. In other words, quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant translation or mistranslation of one quantum by another. Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. … More generally, what Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum. Just as a focusing lens makes one object appear sharper while others appear blurrier, one quantum variable comes into sharp definition at the expense of others. This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. Some phenomena are irreducibly undecidable, both wavelike and particle-like. The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level. (Kindle Locations 748-758)
See? Any object, including other humans, are always withdrawn, hidden, nonlocal. And this is true, OOO says, at the most fundamental levels of reality, not just among humans. Morton uses the metaphor of an octopus, saying even of himself: "all entities (including “myself”) are shy, retiring octopuses that squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows" (Kindle Locations 149-150). Levi Bryant devotes chapters to this idea of objects being withdrawn (emphasis here on being), and I'm getting a bit ahead of myself by discussing it now, but I read Maha's post, so I had to bring it up.

By the way, I am not yet an object-oriented ontologist. I don't know enough yet, though obviously I'm curious enough to look in on it. I'm using OOO so far to see if it can clarify the Rhizo research I've been doing with the swarm. I'm not sure it can, but I'm optimistic.

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