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 The very short version of my approach to object perception is this: the logic of object experience is withdrawn and inaccessible outside it, but we can issue metaphorical speculation about that experience through evidence collected from around the event horizon of that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.