Jussi Parikka, author of Insect Media among numerous other books, recently posed a series of questions about object-oriented ontology. Levi Bryant has already responded, as has Paul Caplan, and I like both of their responses. I thought I’d offer my own here, so here goes. (The block quotes are Jussi’s questions.)
Is not the talk of “object” something that summons an image of perceptible, clearly lined, even stable entity – something that to human eyes could be thought of as the normal mode of perception. We see objects in the world. Humans, benches, buses, cats, trashcans, gloves, computers, images, and so forth. But what would a cat, bench, bus, trashcan, or a computer “see,” or sense?
This is precisely the subject of Alien Phenomenology, as it happens: what is it like to be a thing, to perceive the world in a manner different from the way we humans perceive the world. At the risk of saying “read my book,” the best way I can answer this question is to say… it’s in my book. Which should hit the streets this winter (finally!). The very short version of my approach to object perception is this: the logic of object experience is withdrawn and inaccessible outside it, but we can issue metaphorical speculation about that experience through evidence collected from around the event horizon of that object.
All that said, the “object” in object-oriented ontology is just a name for “thing.” There’s a lengthy discussion in Alien Phenomenology, as it happens, about why I often prefer the name “unit,” since that term avoids both the implication of a subject and the sole implication of “medium-sized” objects (expanding on the theory in my first book). But this is a matter of taste and tactics, really. Philosophically speaking, “object” is just a name for stuff of any kind at any scale.
What if the non-humans it wants to rescue are not (always) something we could with good conscience call objects? I guess OOP wants to treat everything as an object – across scales, genres and epistemological prejudices – and hence bring a certain flatness to the world – to treat humans and non-humans on equal footing, a project which I am in complete agreement with – but does this not risk paradoxically stripping entities, the world of specificity?
The first step of an OOO position reorients philosophical discourse toward entities of all kinds and away from humans as the sole subject of philosophical concern. This is an ontological position—that all things exist equally, or what Levi Bryant and I embrace as flat ontology. That’s a first principles position. From there, so many things are possible, among them a new attention to all sorts of different entities, and with a new attitude of respect and wonder. OOO embraces specificity rather than stripping it away, but it gets there by means of a first principles position on the equal existence of all entities. Or put more simply, OOO is a much more specific philosophy, one in which the uniqueness and plenitude of things invites reflection upon a great many more subjects than has recently been common.
Slight aside: I’m a bit weary of the “argument from risk,” the idea that some dark, black danger might underlie things such that even to ponder their pursuit amounts to depravity. Jussi’s not taking that position here, but the language of his question reminds me of it. In any case, maybe philosophy ought to take some risks.
For instance, in mediatic contexts, what if we need to account for the non-object based realities of such media technological realities as electromagnetism – that hardly could intuitively be called an object. Would treating such entities as objects be actually just confusing, and lead to imagined concretenesses?
Within OOO, there are many possible positions on what count as objects. Mine is perhaps the most promiscuous, and I happily accept electromagnetism as a thing. Part of the benefit of the term “unit” is that it helps us take conceptual and fictional objects as objects, rather than thinking of objects as limited to middle-sized things like toasters and alpacas. Tim Morton’s concept of hyperobjects is likewise helpful here. That said, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about toasters and alpacas either! As for concreteness, keep in mind that OOO takes a position contrary to positions of flux and becoming like those of Deleuze and Whitehead. We do that on purpose, and an objection like “imagined concreteness” would seem to assume flow as a desirable quality of an ontology, a position OOO supporters are unlikely to share (even though Bryant’s onticology does draw from aspects of Deleuze, particularly the notion of the virtual).
Some people are enthusiastic because object oriented philosophy seems at last to offer a philosophical way of treating the non-human (animals, technology, etc.) on an equal footing to the human. Agencies are extended to a whole lot of entities. But such claims, whether intentionally or not, forget that there is a whole long history of such thought; the most often forgotten is the radical feminist materialism of figures such as Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz; this goes nowadays often by the name of new materialism.
We all have our influences. I read this question as Parikka’s declaration that he also likes Braidotti and Grosz on these subjects, and that’s great. The more the merrier. While this is not necessarily the place to go into detail, I think there are both similarities and differences between OOO and the new feminist materialism, enough of both to make for productive conversation.
Another aside: there’s a tendency in contemporary philosophy and theory to play the “déjà vu card,” to claim that some new writing or thinker or idea is really just a warmed over version of someone else, usually the accuser’s favorite thinker. Once more, I don’t think Jussi is doing exactly this, but his question reminds me of the pattern. Everything has precedent, yet everything is also new. We don’t seem troubled by new abstract painters or new street photographers or new fantasy novelists, who both bathe in different traditions and also bring new aesthetic appeal to the world. Why should philosophy be any different?
In this respect, OOO does take some quite specific positions that differ from (although, may not be incompatible with) traditions like feminist materialism or German media theory (which I mention because I know it’s another one of Jussi’s favorites). Graham Harman has written a helpful summary of the general OOO position, which can be cheekily summarized as an anti-correlationism that holds that entities at different scales are the fundamental stuff of being. Each thinker who has identified with OOO has a different take on what this means.
One more addition, which is mine rather than Harman’s, although I think he’d agree (as would, I suspect, Bryant and Morton): OOO has aesthetic goals in addition to philosophical ones. For us, the form of philosophical work is as important—and in my case, sometimes more important—than the premises therein.
Is object oriented philosophy more akin to epistemology, an operationalization of the world into modular units through which we can question human superiority- instead of it being an ontology? If we want to pay more philosophical respect to the world of non-humans – chemicals, soil, minerals, atmospheric currents and such – should we not read more of scientific research that constantly is the one who talks of such worlds, and actually offers insights into different worlds of durations and stabilities from that of the human
The scientific eliminativist strains of speculative realism certainly see themselves as servants to the sciences, and I think one feature of speculative realism generally speaking is an openness to the sciences that is normally not found in continental philosophy. Indeed, I think readers of object-oriented philosophy will find that we are quite engaged with scientific discourse and disciplines—certainly in my case, electrical and computer engineering are major touchstones, but so is cosmology, astronomy, physics (particularly optics), and others. Bryant works with biology and systems theory extensively. Morton is engaged with ecology, of course.
Yet, OOO’s insistence on the withdrawal of objects means that science will only ever get us so far. This doesn’t meant that science is defective or unsavory, but that we also need metaphysics to deal with abstract concepts that are not subject to material experimentation. These are matters of existence, not just of knowledge. There always remains something in reserve, something that cannot be recuperated outside of an object. In my case, it’s the experience of being something (following Nagel, with revisions) that remains outside of scientific explanation.
Hopefully these responses will be helpful to Parikka and others. He and I share an investment in media theory, so I suspect we’ll be conversing on (and perhaps disagreeing about) these topics again.
Wonderful and insightful answers, as always. If I can be so blithe as to disagree on a minor detail, however, I think you overstate OOO’s resistance to becoming. While becoming may not be situated in relation to an omnipresent univocity, divine essence, or pre-individuated substratum, I read some OOO work – Levi’s systems approach, for example – as arguing for dynamic being, formations of being that are constantly under threat of destruction (entropy) or undergoing continual processes of differentiation, even from themselves. It’s certainly a move away from ontic reductionism and, say, the Whiteheadian ‘God’, but a gesture that doesn’t fix reality as a static entity, in my opinion.
Thanks Ian for the longer answer(s) too! Just briefly:
Your Alien Phenomenology will be an interesting book that I am looking forward to. I think my curiosity with the whole debate is to see where some of the questions might that are close-ish to mine might converge or diverge; hence I wanted to pose the questions from my perspective, even if some have the feeling they have been answered already.
Indeed, what I feel symphatic towards is for instance flat ontology — also because it works as an interesting methodological guideline too. As a media archaeologist, you might actually end up following and mapping a whole different set of singularities, attractions, objects (sic!), whatever, than the human agency. In historical writing, some were going that way — the Annales school with long duration, and new cultural histories questioning where agency resides (never really amounting to a non-human questioning per se). Where for me object-focus might get tricky, has also to do with methodology. That is why I wanted to throw in the specificity question; how to use the idea in terms of empirical research that is interested in, let’s say, media history. How to in that way be open to what objects and non-humans (whether documents, monuments, apparata or such agencies as the electromagnetic spectra, or signal standards, etc. etc.) themselves suggest? These related to discussions we continously have with Paul Caplan too. On what level is it justified to talk of software objects if you are making an ontological statement – and what kind of alternatives for a conceptualisation of software (or more spefifically protocol) might you have to take into account from a technical and social perspective, whether within software studies, or outside it?
But what you hint about Alien Phenomenology — it might indeed give some clues. I tried to do a bit of that in Insect Media and balancing between a conceptual figure of the insect (a speculative figure of thought indeed, a conceptual animal persona even) but also very concretely mapping the insect and animal variations in relation to mediatic and technological practices and discourses, so as to focus on the non-human in that way (what I jokingly have called the anti-McLuhan approach, that does not start with extensions of Man but…).
The problem comes in what Harman calls overmining, wherein flux and becoming are considered primary.
I offer what I hope is a satisfactory answer to the question of pragmatism/concreteness of specific considerations of objects in AP. Ontological statements help us consider how to address specific objects.
Sorry for the brief replies to both of you; writing on my phone today.
@Ian – Sure, but I don’t think ‘becoming’ must be considered in terms of a subterranean primary essence. In other words, if objects don’t ‘become’, how can we account for motility, movement, and change? I (think I) see what you’re saying; if becoming primary, then objects can’t extricate themselves from relations. I just think this is a step too far, however, as objects need not remain static to remain independent of other objects. Thus, an object can circulate through different relations and assemblages, entering into and departing relations continuously. In this way, all relations are contingent.
Kris, as Levi’s work shows, there are uses of becoming (via Deleuze, Whitehead, others) that can surely be made compatible with OOO. It’s the “stock” Deleuzean becoming etc. I’m thinking of—and I do think that’s very muchÂ the “standard” (and very popular) thing to do with Deleuze these days.
Jussi, I’m not sure I understand this question:
On what level is it justified to talk of software objects if you are making an ontological statement?
Can you clarify?
I’m about to post on the “flow versus objects” meme. But I shall say this here. OOO doesn’t prefer things with rigid outlines to things without them. But it does very much want to prefer to priority of whatever an “object” (entity, unit, thing) is over other metaphysical beings such as time and space. A flow is temporal. For OOO, a fundamental ontology or “first principles” ontology as Ian says here, it’s simply not good enough to assume flows as the primal substrate, because then we smuggle in time through the ontic (given, unexplained) back door. Indeed, this is what looks more like anthropocentrism to us, since we humans are 3D beings who live “in” time (we assume in everyday speech). Rather, we wish to argue that from entities flows what we call time. Time and space are emissions of things, as in Einstein.
@Ian and Tim – I’m with you on becoming and flow, so long as we acknowledge the possibility of becoming as objects enter into and discard various relations and encounters. For me, the encounter is the source of becoming. So, objects generate their particular temporalities – I would contend that there’s a spatial component to becoming, too – as with relativity, but in a mutual manner. As one object in an encounter generates its own spacetime, so do the others, such that the particular spacetimes, themselves, are distorted. It’s this mutual distortion that I refer to as the ‘really’, a contingent relational space predicated upon the severability of relations and, thus, accounting for the dynamic uncanniness of objectal encounters.
With regard to the ‘dÃ©jÃ vu card’: while I agree that it is usually a poor, time wasting rhetorical trope (that can ultimatly be levelled at anyone), writers can invite its invocation when they overstate the radicality of the difference between themselves and their progenitors. I find that some OOO writers do overstate this.
Particularly, I often fail to recognise Harman’s paraphrases of Latour, which don’t resemble my reading at all. He tends, in my view, to overstate Latour’s relationalism, thus overemphasising the difference between Latour’s ontology and his own.
So, in short, the dÃ©jÃ vu card may be a legitimate argument but it should be made with explicit reference to how radical and new the writer under discussion seems to think that their own work is.
To show that there is continuity between a philosophy and previous philosophies is as easy as it is beside the point. To show that a philosophy has greater continuity between itself and previous philosophies than its philosopher is prepared to admit: this is a legitimate point, in my opinion.
“we can issue metaphorical speculation about that experience through evidence collected from around the event horizon of that object.”
indeed one can but this seems to beg for a new way of writing/arguing that makes the metaphorical (as-if)quality of the speculations more explicit.
perhaps AP will take that up?
Becoming is one way to explain change. There are others too. As a general, minimal metaphysical scaffolding, basic OOO can support many different variations. The one you describe is surely among them.
Sure, although sometimes novelty is not the purpose of philosophy. Rather, reconfiguring existing material in an interesting way can also lead to insight and pleasure.
I hope I’ve done so in the book… we’ll see!
can’t wait to read it, such a prototypical/metaphorical mode seems to be a more productive/inviting alternative to say Derrida’s endless deferrals and signals an object/subject as much manufactured/textualized as discovered.