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 I find at the heart of OOO a concept that stops me: the notion that objects are withdrawn from each other, bound up and isolated in an unapproachable, unknowable substance.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 As a trained philosopher, Blake is clearer about the problems with withdrawn objects, and I lean on his work in this post. First, let's look at what Levi Bryant has to say about withdrawn objects.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Accordingly, following the ground-breaking work of Graham Harman's object-oriented philosophy, I argue that objects are withdrawn from all relation.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 (26) … [A]ll objects are withdrawn, such that there are no objects characterized by full presence or actuality.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.

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