Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Object Oriented Ontology and the Withdrawn Being

As a way of understanding actor-network theory (ANT), I'm reading into object oriented ontology (OOO), starting with Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects, which I think will help me explain why ANT tends to place both human and non-human objects on an equal ontological basis. I started this reading with my last post after a three month hiatus, but I don't think I wrote so well. In a comment to that post, Maha Bali said that she felt over her head with the resulting conversation. This suggests to me that I did not write well, for when bright people can't figure out what you've said, then you haven't said it well enough.

Then a day or so later, Maha wrote a beautiful post called Because Virtual is also Real that captures so much better than I did where I'm going with OOO. She begins her post this way:
Irvin Yalom reminds us of the complexity of human beings. Since categorization allows us “neither [to] identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcend category” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185). In life, as in research, we often use categorization to support our analysis, but we should never forget that this categorization is constructed and even imposed, and there is much more that lies beyond it, and we must realize that “the other is never fully knowable” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185′ the book is called Love’s Executioner)
This is the heart of the matter: no object—including other humans—is fully knowable by another object—including other humans. All objects are complex, and all have an integrity of being that is not fully knowable by or accessible to any other object. This integrity (I like this word at the moment, but it may not be exactly right) of the object places all objects on an equal ontological footing, equally inaccessible. Each object exists in its own right, under its own magic, so to speak. Ontology, then, is not reducible to epistemology, or said another way: what a thing is cannot be reduced to or fully captured by what another thing knows of it and says of it or how another thing interacts with it.

I am not suggesting that Maha was blogging about object-oriented ontology. She wasn't. Rather, she was mostly talking about how virtual relationships can be as valid as actual relationships, in large part because neither kind of relationship fully reveals the other person to us. Thus, both kinds of relationships provide limited, though still valid relationships. Even though Maha may not have been thinking about object-oriented ontology at all, she captures it better than I did in my post. For instance, she captures in a practical way OOO theorist Timothy Morton's point in his book Hyperobjects (2013), where he discusses the shared characteristics of hyperobjects, which "are nonlocal; in other words, any 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject" (Kindle Locations 113-114).
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. In other words, quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant translation or mistranslation of one quantum by another. Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. … More generally, what Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum. Just as a focusing lens makes one object appear sharper while others appear blurrier, one quantum variable comes into sharp definition at the expense of others. This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. Some phenomena are irreducibly undecidable, both wavelike and particle-like. The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level. (Kindle Locations 748-758)
See? Any object, including other humans, are always withdrawn, hidden, nonlocal. And this is true, OOO says, at the most fundamental levels of reality, not just among humans. Morton uses the metaphor of an octopus, saying even of himself: "all entities (including “myself”) are shy, retiring octopuses that squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows" (Kindle Locations 149-150). Levi Bryant devotes chapters to this idea of objects being withdrawn (emphasis here on being), and I'm getting a bit ahead of myself by discussing it now, but I read Maha's post, so I had to bring it up.

By the way, I am not yet an object-oriented ontologist. I don't know enough yet, though obviously I'm curious enough to look in on it. I'm using OOO so far to see if it can clarify the Rhizo research I've been doing with the swarm. I'm not sure it can, but I'm optimistic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rhizo, ANT, and Object Oriented Ontology

In my research with the Rhizo swarm, I have read enough actor-network theory to know that ANT practitioners give nonhuman actors equal status to human actors, flattening the field of reality and removing humans from their position of privilege. But I wasn't sure why ANT did that and on what basis it rendered reality flat. I think I understand better as I read more about object oriented ontology, or OOO. Oooo, that's nice (how could I resist?). I was introduced to OOO through Timothy Morton's 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, but not until I dived into Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects (2011) did I start making some necessary connections that help explain for me what our rhizo group has been doing in its ANT explorations.

First for me, Bryant clarifies the problem that OOO is trying to address: the subject/object dualism that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, which subtly but radically shifted thought about reality from questions of ontology (being) to questions about epistemology (knowing). In other words, about the time of Descartes and Hume, many people (certainly not all) quit asking what things are and started asking what we know about things. Knowing was placed before being, epistemology before ontology, and this privileged humans over all other objects, which were defined in terms of their relationship to human subjects. In a deep sense, then, objects are as they are known and signified by human subjects. This seriously devalues nonhuman objects, including some pretty impressive objects such as quarks and galaxies. As Bryant says, it
condemns philosophy to a thoroughly anthropocentric reference. Because the ontological question of substance is elided into the epistemological question of our knowledge of substance, all discussions of substance necessarily contain a human reference.The subtext or fine print surrounding our discussions of substance always contain reference to an implicit “for-us”. This is true even of the anti-humanist structuralists and post- structuralists who purport to dispense with the subject in favor of various impersonal and anonymous social forces like language and structure that exceed the intentions of individuals. Here we still remain in the orbit of an anthropocentric universe insofar as society and culture are human phenomena, and all of being is subordinated to these forces. Being is thereby reduced to what being is for us. (DoE, 19)
This switch to epistemology over ontology does more than simply devalue the Universe, making it a correlate of mind, subject, culture, or language. It also splits philosophy into realists such as Descartes who argue that human representations can accurately map reality and the anti-realists such as Hume who argue that human representations can not reliably map reality, but always remain a matter of consensus and inter-subjective agreement. Though these are radically different and very antagonistic views of reality, they both privilege the human subject over all other objects. They differ mostly in whether they believe that language, math, and other human representations accurately map reality as it is or as we see it.

Lots of thinkers have objected to this Cartesian dualism, and the object oriented ontologists appear to be among the latest to suggest a corrective. The job of object oriented ontology is to return ontology to its original place before epistemology, or being before knowing. They argue that when we put ontology first, then objects exist in their own right and not as mere backgrounds for human representations and that humans become one object among all the other objects. This should not imply some kind of naive equality. Different objects in different contexts can assume greater or lesser importance. Bryant quotes Ian Bogost's quip that all objects … equally exist while they do not exist equally (19). Bryant also notes that object oriented ontology does not exclude humans; rather, it decenters the human. Bryant says that for OOO "there is only one type of being: objects. As a consequence, humans are not excluded, but are rather objects among the various types of objects that exist or populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities" (20).

This, then, helps me understand why ANT theorists insist that we must account for all agents, all objects, both human and non-human, for no object exists merely as a representation for some other object. No object exists by virtue of its correlation to some subject. Objects are agents, existing and acting in their own right, and if we want to explore and understand an event such as Rhizo15, then we must account for the actions and interactions of as many actors/objects as possible, and we must account for each object/actor in its own right and from its own point of view. This is not easy, and I do not know if I can do it, but I think it is what ANT and OOO call us to do.


This is my first post in over three months as I have been greatly distracted by taking a new teaching position with a new university (Middle Georgia State University) and moving from West Palm Beach, FL, to Macon, GA. I've decided to move my blog to a new URL and tweak its look, in part to mark my other changes. Though this change has interrupted my blogging—a grievous loss to me—it has overall been very good for me and my family. I'm happy.

And I have much more to say about Rhizo, ANT, and OOO, but later.