Note: this post and the next one were inspired in part by my reading of the text to a recent talk by Levi Bryant that he has kindly made freely available
Can the individual member of an intellectual movement just stipulate his way out of an objection that is addressed to his heterogeneous group? Is the seeming semantic control of meanings secured by such stipulation undermined by the integration of the individual thinker into a lexically unified but semantically heteroclite group? Can one make a philosophical name for oneself by using such lexical phantasms as tokens of membership (generic sameness) and then individualising oneself with an idiosyncratic semantic instantiation of the common lexic (specific difference)? Given that the starting point is a set of empty lexical tokens, can one do philosophy in the subjunctive mode, endlessly talking about what one « might » say or what a good analysis « would » include?
In the case of Object-Oriented Ontology, the question is often asked: is the use of the word “object” as ontological universal appropriate given its habitual connotations? The suspicion is that behind the metaphysical façade the unified terminology dissimulates the forced juxtaposition of radically disparate and incompatible theories. Yet there remains a common problematic despite these substantial differences, over and above the naïve lexical pseudo-unification provided by a shared meta-language. What emerges from all the « discussion » with and around its key figures is that the nature of OOO is not philosophical at all, but that of a group phantasm, and as such is not open to discussion. Such pseudo-unification at the level of group phantasm is accompanied by a pseudo-unification at the ontological level.
The official meta-language of OOO reduces everything to « objects » (and their relations). To be precise we should call these entities proposed by the meta-linguistic model « meta-objects ». The ontological instantiation of that meta-ontology promoted by Graham Harman is that these meta-objects are « objects ». No doubt confused himself by the imprecision of his vocabulary, Harman actually gives « examples » of objects, an impossibility in a system where objects are unknowable, invisible, untouchable, etc. Levi Bryant’s instantiation is quite different, in that for him these meta-objects are « matter », or « nature », or « being », or events or processes or whatever. Note that this is not a discovery about the world but a semantic stipulation of what Bryant chooses to call his instantiated objects. As with Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, Bryant’s matter-oriented ontology has no engagement with the world whatsoever, but is a vast ramified pun on the word « object », conflating its meta-ontological and its ontological sense. Simlarly, if he starts out by posing that « being » and « nature » are synonyms, it is no discovery to find that culture is a part of nature. This is just a banal consequence of his posit.
I believe firmly in the necessity and utility of contributions by the ordinary citizen to debates on recondite subjects of all sorts, including metaphysical questions such as that of the nature of reality, which can have an influence on the conduct of our lives. Such debates must not be left to the specialists in their gated academies, but should allow for more open exchanges between all those concerned. This is important if we want to defend a democracy of thought and action against the tyranny of experts and against the phantasms vehiculated by special groups.
This democratic openness is not the default attitude of many of our academics, or « bureaucrats of thought » as Feyerabend called them. Strange and sophisticated views are elaborated to replace common sense perspectives, and this is a good thing. Yet sometimes it is necessary to ask if the picture of common sense that is presupposed in these intellectual investigations is reliable. Are such academic intellectuals reliable informants about the nature of common sense? Paul Feyerabend gives good reasons to believe that in the domain of philosophy this is not the case, that the philosopher’s representation of the world of common sense is more of an abstract caricature than a realistic description.
In FAREWELL TO REASON Feyerabend argues that “Commonsense views…contain subtly articulated ontologies including spirits, dreams, battles, ideas, gods, rainbows, pains, minerals, planets, animals, festivities, justice, fate, sickness, divorces, the sky, sickness, death, fear – and so on” (FTR, 64). These “subtly articulated ontologies” of commonsense come with their own standards and measures and dimensions. Problems of knowledge or reality “arise when the ingredients of complex worlds of this kind are subsumed under abstract concepts and are then evaluated” (FTR, 64). This evaluation of the complex worlds of commonsense in terms of the abstract concepts of the philosopher is too often to the detriment of commonsense. Feyerabend condemns such judgements explaining: “They are not fruits of more refined ways of thinking; they arise because delicate matters are compared to crude ideas and found to be lacking in crudeness” (FTR, 64).
Bruno Latour agrees. He writes about the “popularizer…dumbfounded by the multiplicity of quantum worlds” (INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, 119 ), believing that the common sense world by contrast has the unicity and simplicity of Euclidean space filled with familiar solid objects. Bruno Latour talks about the “institution” of matter, a horrible simplification of the diverse materials put into play in our practices. Such « matter » is a philosophical phantasm, proclaimed in total ignorance of and abstraction from, our ordinary experience. This leads Latour to declare: “There is no matter at all” (121). That is to say that materialism is a metaphysical principle, invoking an abstract « matter » as a lowest common denominator, to unify and homogenise the heterogeneous materials deployed by different networks of knowledge and existence. Materialists propounding such a synchronic ontology are not hard-headed no-nonsense realists, but nostalgic believers in transcendent entities, who take consolation in the thought of matter rather than trying to deal with the heterogeneity of materials engaged by our practices.
There is no matter in the metaphysical sense because there is no unity of science, and such disunity is by now a common place. As I have argued in citing Feyerabend and Latour, there is no unity of common sense either. The conclusion is that there is something deeply flawed with the metaphysical notion of matter applied indiscriminately to all the entities of our common world, of which the sciences are important participants. Any materialism or naturalism that maintains otherwise is totally empty of content, amounting to just a set of meaningless ritual formulae (synchronic ontology). A non-metaphysical materialism, in contrast, is both more concrete and more democratic, and is to be judged on its consequences for our knowledge and for our collectives, both present and future (diachronic ontology).
Instead of simply decreeing apriori, by semantic stipulation, that everything is an object (in whatever sense you can be finally pinned down to), shouldn’t one approach this as an empirical question? Such a far-reaching claim should be given enough content to be susceptible of scientific investigation. Can one have a democracy of immanence outside the transcendent fiats, so as to respect the empirical specificities of the world? We need more empirical research and less semantic stipulation.
As to the historical question of the so-called idealism or anthropocentrism of Continental philosophy, I think that scientistic commentators such as Bryant give us a very misleading picture. Althusser, Rancière, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault (despite the absurd question-begging equivocations of OOO, that the notion of “power” is somehow “anthropocentric”), Michel Serres, Bernard Stiegler, are all materialists – though in order to avoid the aporia indicated above, they have each in their own way elaborated a diachronic ontology. Levi Bryant, despite his surface differences with Harman, exhibits the typical failings of OOO, which as I have argued in an earlier paper (IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?) is a regressive product, proposing yet another synchronic ontology and apparently incapable of doing justice to, or even grasping the nature of, such diachronic materialism.
If one takes out all the polemics with caricatures of Continental philosophy or of « epistemology », if one removes all the subjunctive evoking of what one « might » say or « would » look at, of what « perhaps » is to be found, there remains precious little in Bryant’s texts. All his examples are mere conceptual possibilities, subjunctive confirmations of lexical posits. Similarly, if one removes all the illegitimate examples in Harman’s text (there can be no concrete examples in his OOP) we are left with an ontological delirium about objects in a metaphysical parallel universe. This is my principal objection to OOO, not the conceptual confusion (anyone can make a mistake), not the intellectual timidity (they don’t dare debate with each other), not the gang mentality (what I have called their « quarrelationism« ). The big problem is that OOO is just empty word-magic masquerading as involvement with concrete things.
« The big problem is that OOO is just empty word-magic masquerading as involvement with concrete things. »
But, Terence, the same could be said about utterances in any language. Everyone – no matter how tortured their language – is ultimately talking about real things (and illusions are real things – as we revel in their endless exposure ; )
More seriously, I’ve just been reading Fernando Zalamea’s SYNTHETIC PHILOSOPHY OF CONTEMPORARY MATHEMATICS on the Eidal, the Quiddital, and the Archeal, where math describes reality in more than quantitative ways through the emergence of a « noncommutative paradigm ». Seeing through the mist (of not knowing much math) the physical relevance of string & knot theories, along with Feynman diagrams.
They are all more or less helpful ways of gesturing at whatever’s out there.
Always a pleasure to read your thoughts! Mark
« the same could be said about utterances in any language »
I make a distinction between utterances (énonciations) and statements (énoncés). Bryant is making statements about matter and materialism while trying to be materialist and to make materialist utterances.
I have not yet read Zalamea, but I will soon. Thanks for the summary.
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