Even though we didn’t really talk much about philosophy, after visiting Graham Harman in Cairo two weeks ago, I was reenergized to think about philosophy in general and speculative realism in particular.
In the short time since, a number of friendly bonfires have flared up around the web, most of them camps emanating from Graham’s blog and that of Levi Bryant. I’d been culturing my own speculative realism interests in secret, even though I dropped hints about how they connect to my past and future work.
But two recent posts in particular make me feel the need to RSVP to the party more explicitly.
First, in The Rise of Objects Graham invokes the term ontography as an alternate name for object-oriented philosophy. (As will become relevant in a moment, Harman borrows “ontography” from M.R. James, the famous author of ghost stories.) Says Harman,
And isn’t “ontography” a pretty good name for what I’m doing? Geographers who make maps have a limited number of basic personae to deal with: rivers, woods, highways, mountains, and the occasional giant television towers.
Given my concerns about the name object oriented philosophy, I’m more than happy to consider other names. But it is the pragmatic implications of this term that appeals to me. Geographers, to borrow the example, deal with specific sorts of things in their pursuit of the study of the physical features of the earth. (Harman later noted that others, including Michael Lynch, had laid claim to “ontography,” but also notes that it doesn’t really matter. I agree.)
Second, in Realism and SpeculativeÂ Realism, Levi explores the possible relationships between speculative realism and literature. Says Bryant,
If we are looking for literary equivalents of Object-Oriented Ontology or Onticology, we would do better to look at the realisms of Italo Calvino in Cosmicomics and T Zero, or, better yet, the strange world depicted Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String.
Here too, given my background as a comparatist, I’m more than happy to welcome literary examples. But it is the implication of the concrete and representational underworld of objects that appeals to me. Writers, to borrow the example once again, deal with specific situations in their crafting of story, poem, or vignette.
I’d mentioned before that I started thinking about a pragmatic speculative realism in my keynote at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference last summer (indeed, some of this work has already been published in the proceedings); and I planned to continue that work for my November plenary at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference. The subject of both of those talks—and if all goes well the short book into which I hope to develop them—is an object-oriented philosophy that underwrites the consideration of particular objects, without concern for those objects’ relation to or use by human actors. I’ve been tentatively calling this move alien phenomenology, a term I’d argue is largely synonymous with ontography, although perhaps not in immediately obvious ways.
Partly as preview, and partly to put a stake in the ground, here are a few tenets that describe the important aspects of this approach, from my perspective.
First principles invite application
As with any metaphysics, speculative realism is a philosophy of first principles, of basic tenets and axioms that stand as foundations. But foundations invite (although they do not require) the erection of structures atop. In the case of speculative realism, we ought to be able to apply its basic tenets not only to metaphysical concerns, but also toward the consideration of specific objects and their relations.
Specific objects matter
As charmed as I am by Graham Harman’s frequent lists of objects ignored by philosophy (a practice inspired more than a little by Latour), it’s not enough just to name objects. They also ought to be considered individually and together, lest the lighthouse, dragonfly, lawnmower, and barley all collapse into the singularity of example without exemplification.
Scientific naturalism is boring
This is perhaps just a reiteration of tenets already held by Harman and others, but it is worth repeating. It will be tempting to assume that ontography is just a fancy name for scientism, whereby all things reduce to fundamental particles or physical laws. What’s important about this point is not just that naturalism is wrong, but that it’s also boring. The world is more interesting than quarks and brain waves.
Science studies is insufficient
Many of the applied versions of the study of objects, including a large part of ur-object philosopher Bruno Latour’s work, can be found in the discipline of science studies (sometimes also called science and technology studies, or STS). The problem with STS for my specific purposes (not generally, but in this instance) is its overemphasis on social context and human action, relation, and effect.
Phenomenology can be rescued
Speculative realism is automatically suspicious of phenomenology, because phenomenology embraces correlationism almost by definition; it is a field that has always considered human perception primarily, if not exclusively. But it need not be such, and the notion of perception and bracketing can exceed the sole purview of human consciousness. All objects “perceive,” but they all do so differently.
If we take seriously Harman’s theory of vicarious causation, that things never really interact with one another, but fuse or connect in a solely conceptual fashion, then the only access any object has to any other is conceptual. When objects make sense of other objects, whether those objects are humans or toothbrushes, they do so through metaphor. Thus, a pragmatic philosophical consideration of objects involves a series of meta-metaphorizations. This requires creative effort, making object-oriented philosophy fundamentally literary, artistic.
Philosophy involves the construction of a variety of artifacts
This is perhaps the most radical claim. Beyond books, philosophers don’t tend to make things. But that need not be true, and indeed perhaps it ought not. Pragmatism in speculative realism can certainly involve writing, but it might also involve the creation of other sorts of objects as well.
So, that’s a preview of where my thinking is heading. I hope it offers simultaneous clarity and curiosity. But mostly I hope it confirms my intentions to participate in these ongoing conversations.
Since photography will play a role in the future of this work, I want to close with a photo from my trip to Cairo, one that serves as a kind of unconventional summation of the above. It’s shot from the ground, directly up the face of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The perspective shift turns this structure of human ritual and engineering into an ordinary surface, an accident of topography. A mere object.
Update: Harman offers a few responses, all very helpful. I’ll add some responses in the comments below.
Some responses to Graham Harman’s responses at the link above:
– On object-oriented philosophy as a term, I’ve made my questions about it clear enough in the past, but I’m more than happy to agree that a multiplicity of names is a good way to triangulate a problem. In any case, this post was meant more to be about my initial reaction of fondness for “ontography” than about my concern with “object-oriented philosophy”
– On phenomenology, Graham is right that the language above oversimplifies SR’s overall reaction to phenomenology. Anyone who reads his work will find the fondness for Husserl he mentions.
– On lists of objects, I’m actually far less concerned with Graham’s lovely lists than I was a year ago, when I did read them as a kind of abdication. I now see them as an invitation.
– On a metaphysics videogame, this is a challenging and wonderful idea that I want to think about more.
I’d be interested in hearing more about what set of issues in technological and media studies have prompted your interest in object-oriented ontology. My sense is that “cultural studies” has been far too dominated by what I generically refer to as “semiotic” approaches. That is, we get a lot of emphasis on interpretation and analysis of signs and cultural phenomena, and the rest falls by the wayside. In my own vocabulary, the technology end of things– treated in a non-anthropomorphic manner –gets treated as a mere vehicle for these cultural significations, forces, and structures of power. The idea seems to be that the medium is irrelevant– functioning only as a carrier (vehicle) of signs –and contributes nothing of its own.
Now, coming from a cultural studies background myself (I used to practice as a Lacanian psychoanalyst), I certainly think we’ve made massive strides in the semiotic domain, but I think we miss massive parts of the story if we restrict ourselves to human-world relations to the detriment of the secret life of these other types of objects. Moreover, I think we’re led to ask the wrong sorts of questions when we take this approach as we overlook essential features of structuring elements in the world.
I often find a great deal of inspiration from biology because it asks fundamental questions like “what is an individual?”, “how are species formed?”, etc., that can be transposed into other domains of inquiry. Currently I’m going back through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students and am, as always, finding this fecundity of biological thought to be valuable with respect to these issues. There Dennett distinguishes between four types of possibility and introduces the concept of “design space”: logical possibility, physical possibility, biological possibility, and historical possibility. Thus, for example, superman is logically possible, but not physically possible because nothing can go faster than the speed of light. Likewise, today rats are possible but they were not possible a few billion years ago because the environment had not yet been “prepped” with oxygen by other organisms and because other organisms had not yet developed. Finally, we have things that are more or less possible based on historical actualities such as the QWERTY keyboard that functions as a constraining role on the development of future keyboards.
To this list of possibilities, I think we need to add social possibility. That is, what sort of constraints play a role in determining what is socially possible at any given point in time. The problem with the semiotic approach is that it ignores all sorts of constraining influences. Technology is something more than a carrier of signifiers, signs, power, or social forces, but has an autonomous structure that develops according to its own internal logic (much like organisms develop, and without purpose or telos to boot!), and which has a morphogenetic or individuating function with regard to human life, practices, meanings, and social structures. Here, I think, the charge of “technological determinism” is rather stupid and reactionary. The point isn’t that technology determines particular social phenomena, but that it plays an organizing role. Thus, nothing determined that the theory blog network would shake out along the lines of speculative realism and anti-realism, but this particular emergent community would not have occurred were the technology not there. Likewise, nothing determines what images and forms of music artists will make with the advent of digital coding, but nonetheless digital coding has a transformative effect on the space of possibilities and what subsequently emerges.
Here the relation between phenomenality and the subject is somewhat reversed. Where the classical phenomenological tradition has the subject constituting the phenomena where the human, Dasein, or body is the primary agent, instead we get a strange feedback loop where phenomenality and the subject is constituted by a technology that is no longer human centered (cf. Stiegler and Simondon) and that takes on a life of its own. Clearly my thoughts are still vague here, but my view is that our hermeneutic and human-centric modes of analysis are completely inadequate to analyzing these sorts of structures. We should all really talk about putting together a conference on these issues– entitled “Liberating the Machine” perhaps? –or a special journal/edited collection on these issues. It is absolutely vital that such a project be highly interdisciplinary so as to avoid institutional individuations and assumptions and promote fertile cross-pollinations. Anyway, apologies for the rambling, scattered, lengthy comment.
Levi, great questions and observations. I’ll respond in detail soon, probably in another post.
Ok, I’ve responded to Levi’s question, here
Perhaps calling the conference/journal Liberating the Machine still hides our subject oriented tendencies; a problem of language. For this topic we might ‘lack the grammar’ still since we must first imagine how to discuss objects/machines in a way that snaps them into ‘life’, but does not anthropologize them. Perhaps Deleuze is the thinker for the job, but I don’t know enough about him except that our goal would be something like becoming-machine/object. A daunting prospect!
Paul, I haven’t thought about names very much, but what is it about “Liberating the Machine” that bothers you? Is it the idea of ascribing the human idea of emancipation to machines?
I understand your concern for anthropologizing objects, but I actually have some hope for the strategy of anthropomorphizing them, although only a little bit. I’m taking very seriously, and very literally, Graham’s idea that causation is metaphor. I’ll be expanding on this in the writing I’ll be doing from August through November, some of which I’ll surely post here.
I’m reminded a bit of a symposium I organized a year and a half ago at Georgia Tech called Dwelling Machines. It was certainly a more correlationist affair, if you will, but yet also an event about objects.
‘Is it the idea of ascribing the human idea of emancipation to machines?’
Yes that would be my fear, but I admit that fear might have more to do with my ignorance of precisely what is involved here as the entire area is new to me.
I’ll wait for your upcoming posts, but I would note that Dwelling Machines is pretty much the kind of name I would put forward…dwelling being a major Heideggerian theme (with an authentic accent), but of course this would be my own correlationist bias coming to the fore.
Yes, there was more than a little Heideggerian inspiration for the dwelling theme. We’ll keep hammering on this. As it were.