Following the discussion of chapter 1, Darius Kazemi has posted discussion notes for chapters 2 and 3 of Alien Phenomenology—Ontography and Metaphorism, respectively. I thought I’d make a few comments on the topics discussed there.
Time is discussed as a particularly mind-bending topic in OOO. AP doesn’t offer a theory of time; the conversation chez Darius is about meanwhile an idea that you might call the inverse or reciprocal of a unit. But more generally, one of the weirder features of time in OOO is that it’s often presented as a factor relative to a particular object. Or, differently stated, time lives on the inside of things. In The Quadruple Object, Harman explains time succinctly as “the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities.” He summarizes the idea in a recent interview:
What gives us the sensation of time passing is the fact that the same sensual objects endure for a certain period even though there is a constant shimmering of qualities along their surface. … Time concerns nothing but the superficial drama of surface qualities swirling atop a sensual object that is somewhat durable but ultimately unreal.
Much of this is particular to Harman, but it’s useful for the purposes Darius et al uncover, because it underscores the fact that time is related to a thing’s experience, not to some over-arching force in the universe. The oak tree’s experience of the earth and the sunlight is clearly operating on a different time horizon than the wasp’s experience of the tree. Or, to use an example from Tim Morton, hyperobjects like climate and plutonium only produce very modest sensual effects for us humans, largely because they are so massively distributed in time (and space too, but that’s another matter). This might just be a matter of colliding terms, but I can’t think of any better one to use than “time” for the elapse of experience.
Recently Peter Gratton has been worrying about Harman’s concept of time. “Time,” Gratton summarizes, “is but a ‘tension in its sensual qualities’—that is, not in the object’s ‘hidden’ reality.” The thing that needs to be remembered here is that Harman’s sensual object only exists in the experience of another object in the first place; it’s not some persistent abstraction. Gratton concludes that “things in themselves are forever in the present,” and then wonders how something like music or film can exist, which are time-based. But again, we must remind ourselves that objects have different senses of presence, both in themselves and in relation to other units. Time is on the inside of objects.
Another topic in the discussion is the ontograph, my name for works that catalog the diversity of being, deliberately or not. Brendan Keogh first thinks he’s objecting when noting that ontography seems to create surprising associations between things, but then notes that, in fact, I explicitly talk about ontography as a tool for “drawing attention to the couplings of and chasms between things.” Keogh brings up Latour’s relations, but stops short of coming to the conclusion OOO suggests: relations are themselves objects.
If that seems counter-intuitive, use my term unit instead: relations are themselves units. Darius makes this clarification himself later in the discussion.
Darius calls the section on speculative ethics “the most incendiary” in the book, and I suppose that’s not a surprising thing to say. What is surprising is that the readers in the group—and certainly elsewhere—conclude that my take on the subject “demolishes” ethics (Ben Abraham) or “makes political, ethical decisions impossible” (Cameron Kunzelman). This isn’t the case, but to see why requires a bit of squinting.
Ben gets closer when he says, later in the discussion, “I have no idea about addressing the ethics of non-humans without being a correlationist and privileging life that’s more like us.” Even if we can metaphorize objects principles of action as “moral,” there’s no compelling reason to believe that we would ever be able to draw convincing conclusions about matters of ought on the inside of things. Nothing about that state of affairs prevents we humans from establishing and debating our own ethical or political codes, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that those codes fully account for the interests of other things, certainly rutabagas and meadows and Ford F-150s, but also cats and giant pandas. That shouldn’t stop us from establishing such codes, but knowing their limits is humbling. Here’s Daniel Joseph’s summary along those lines from the AP discussion:
It seems like, to me anyways, we are always going to be stuck in a correlationist loop, but that we can still guess and reason and make sense of things from the material. When it comes to our ethical acts, building up a solid understanding of what appears to be, say, suffering, or sadness, or pain, or whatever, as a category that we can then begin to think about in terms of inanimate things. One that tries its best to escape the correlation, even though we know we will fail seems important.
As far as I see it, this is about all we can do. It doesn’t devolve into a terrible miasma of inaction where I worry about the ethics of my apartment floor while I step on it, but rather a plan of action towards those things we have begun to understand better ethically.
Cameron asks a question that’s also worthy of citing and attempting to answer here:
At the end of the day, I just want someone in the OOO field to explain to me how thinking the ethical through their ontological project helps me understand who should get a heart transplant, you know? Because taking OOO very seriously has some real political consequences—if plant life is as important as human life, which is what I take from flat ontology, then ethical questions come to bear on it. I have $10 to send to charity. Do I spend that money to plant trees or do I send it to a charity to help kids? I think this is the “lived” end of Bogost’s idea that ethics explode outward—we are forced to think of the multitude of ethical relationships that occur in the universe. At the end of the day, though, I have to make a decision about what to do with my money, and I do think that we need better mechanisms and thoughts about that while still thinking through a OOO frame.
For starters, OOO doesn’t claim that plant life is as important as human life. It just claims that it is as extant as human life—and tacos and armadillos. This is where critics of OOO continue to get hung up: if anything, flat ontology complicates rather than clarifies (human) ethical decision. If you have $10 to send to charity, who’s to say the $10 bill doesn’t deserve a say in the matter? That may seem like a silly example, and indeed it probably is. But it returns to the concept of humility, which I think is rapidly emerging as the opposite of nihilism in OOO’s counterpoint to eliminativism. The scope of beings that are potentially subject to ethical decisions are considerably expanded in OOO, and this makes ethics of the usual sort increasingly incomplete.
I’ve toyed with the idea of returning to this part of the book for future work (indeed, I thought of it at the time I was writing the section on speculative ethics). It seems a little cutesy to do an “Alien” trilogy, but I can imagine a future work on Alien Ethics. Time will tell.
Finally, Ben Abraham finds himself concerned with my use of the term “experience” to describe whatever it is that happens within units of various kinds.
Theres a fuzziness here around the use of ‘experience’, and again I don’t think it’s a flaw but rather a property of the limits of language… in what possible sense is the whatever-it-is that happens to an object even remotely commensurable with “experience” … So I guess what I’m arguing for is an avoidance of the term “experience” and instead think it’d be better (though more complicated) to be descriptive, even in a “whatever it is that happens to a thing” sense. We need a word for that but it’s not experience, because that word is loaded with connotations of consciousness/observance/subjectivity. It’s small wonder that (lazy?) critics accuse OOO, etc of panpsychism based on the use of “experience”…
The reason such critics are lazy is that both myself and Harman address panpsychism directly (me in the first chapter of AP, Harman in The Quadruple Object). I certainly don’t want to go so far as to claim that all units have minds or souls or whatever (neither does Harman), so experience seems like a reasonable compromise, particularly given that the whole book underscores the fact that such characterizations are taken at a remove, are metaphorical like causation itself.
For what its worth, in The Quadruple Object Harman suggests the term confrontation for this purpose: “Wakeful humans confront strawberries and commando raids, a sleeper confronts the bed, and a pebble confronts the asphalt that it strikes.” This solution may or may not please Ben, but it’s just what he asks for. As for me, I’m sticking with experience. It’s colorful and vibrant, and its inaccuracy reminds me that it is, at the end of the day, mere metaphor.