Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rick Elmore's De Paul Response Paper

This is so magnificent I'm just going to post it as is, and put my response in a subsequent post. I continue to be moved whenever I read it. Beyond exemplary.

Response to Tim Morton’s “Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects”
DePaul University Grad Conference April 9, 2011
R. Elmore

What to say? How to respond? It’s kind of tough to follow the end of the world after all. One thing that needs mentioning here at the beginning and concerning the beginning is that the first fourteen pages of this paper are astonishing.

It’s not that I don’t like the other twelve. They’re fascinating as well. But this first fourteen, there is so much packed in presented with such care and clarity. Let’s review for a second: Plutonium, global climate change, Lacan, Beck, the year 1900, Husserl, Harman, Goldilocks, Gaussian space time, Augustinian Neo-Platonism, quantum theory, earthquakes, tsunamis, Aristotle, Max Planck, RNA, DNA, Deleuze, Whitehead, computers, Heidegger, dinosaurs, music, writing, x-rays, history. It’s quite a crew. And they are rolling very, very deep. However, it is from the end of this paper and from the intriguing notion of causality as translation that I’ll take my cue to begin. If you might allow me to translate a little of these first pages as a means to ask a number of what I think are interrelated questions. The first has to do with the relationship between hyperobjects and other kinds of objects or non-hyperobjects.

So just to translate a bit.

Hyperobjects are objects that are “massively distributed in time and space” (1). They are, thus, different from objects that are not so massively distributed. There is a way in which one would not think of this bottle, here, as a hyperobject. At least initially, it doesn’t appear massively distributed. In outlining the six characteristics of hyperobjects, however, we come to see what seem to be characteristics of objects in general or at least characteristics that affect all objects.

So take viscosity, you say in that section, “[i]n a sense, all objects are caught in the sticky goo of viscosity, because they never ontologically exhaust one another” (2-3). Viscosity, the fact that there is no metalanguage or metaposition, that we are all “irredeemably glued to reality” is not just a characteristic of hyperobjects. All objects are entangled with other objects. Likewise, it seems to me that molten temporality, nonlocality, and phasing ultimately show us something about the space and time of all objects.

Allow me to translate again. I understand molten temporality as having to do primarily with general relativistic effects. Such effects are of course happening to all objects all the time, but it is the immense size and duration of hyperobjects that allows them to actually manifest these effects. Yet, molten temporality shows us something fundamental about the character of time and space, namely, that they are not empty containers. You argue this challenges any form of mechanistic, Newtonian, or Augustinian Neo-Platonism that would continue to understand space or time as something that objects exist in.

This insight gets cashed out, I think, two characteristics later in the figure of phasing, where we come to see that instead of being containers, space and time are actually inside objects: “Time is now radically inside objects, rippling through them […] And space is inside objects, differentiating their parts from one another” (9). Phasing shows us that objects are time and space. Some of what this means gets developed in the discussion of nonlocality, interobjectivity, and history. To translate just a bit more.

Non-locality is a quantum phenomenon. It means that particles can interact over an arbitrary distance, or that distance does not determine or even relate to these kinds of effects. You are clear that nonlocality only “metaphorically” applies to hyperobjects (I will have more to ask about the role of metaphor here in just a moment). However, the metaphorical importance of nonlocality is that it shows that “[l]ocality is a kind of abstraction” (5). The existence of hyperobjects challenges the notion that what is local, here and now, is somehow more real or less abstract than say the global. It challenges both the discreetness of objects and an ontological or argumentative position that would ground itself on some appeal to the local. Your example is any form “‘I refute it thus sir’ stone kicking’” (6). The fact that it snows in Washington D.C. in October doesn’t disprove global climate change because that snow is not just a local, discreet, isolated object but is an entangled emergence of the hyperobject, climate change. However, if we might return to this bottle here.

Nonlocality suggests that the fact that this bottle doesn’t seem massively distributed in time and space doesn’t entail that it is not. Maybe this bottle is more massively distributed then it first appears? This question of discreetness, of where objects begin or end was already non-metaphorically at issue in the notion of viscosity. However, it also ties very nicely into the characteristic of interobjectivity.

Interobjectivity is the claim that “nothing is ever experienced directly, only mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space” (10). Objects are interobjective insofar as they are never “experienced” without some other entities (at least one). You argue that a number of things are entailed by interobjectivity.

First, in interobjective systems “there is at least one entity that is withdrawn.” All experience, knowledge, and emergence is finite. You make clear this is not a claim that need involve humans. The “emergence” of any object entails that it is “witnessed or recorded by some entity in some way” (11). This entity need not be a human. But this witnessing or recording, or perhaps translating, is never wholly successful. Beats, writing, and in fact reality is interobjective, as these objects require some other object to emerge. Hence, interobjectivity shows us that not only are all objects viscously entangled with other objects but they are also mediated by other objects. Hyperobjects are particularly good at revealing this interobjective, viscous entanglement and mediation but they are not alone in it.

I want to set aside the characteristic of history for a moment, and, in light of the above translations, ask a seemingly simple question. Namely, given what you have said, is what is true of hyperobjects not also true of all other objects? Is there is a way in which all objects are “[r]ecords and fragments and samples of hyperobjects […] distributed throughout the world like fragments of an exploded star that end up as chemicals that compose lifeforms” (13)? To return to this bottle here. Is it a fragment of a hyperobject, one that might include factory production, mineral extraction, transportation fuels, paint, certain aesthetic sensibilities, and so on? Is this what hyperobjects at root reveal to us about reality and also impress on us about ethics? None of this stuff is discreet and this means that any kind of discreetly grounded ethics, for example self-interest theory, is not adequate? I want to return to the question of ethics in a bit. However, this question of discreetness and mediation leads me to another question, having to do with the role of metaphor and causality.

There are two ways in which metaphor appears in your paper. First, in your discussion of molten temporality and nonlocality you qualify a number of your points as in some way “metaphorical.” For example, in relation to nonlocality you say, “nonlocality. This is definitely metaphorical and not literal, at least as far as we know, since real nonlocality, which is a quantum phenomenon, only occurs (we think) at very small scales” (4). And a bit further on you write, “[l]ocality is an abstraction.Metaphorically this applies to hyperobjects” (5). I take the qualifications of “metaphorical” or “metaphorically” to express that hyperobjects are in fact not really nonlocal in the way that particles can be and that their locality is not really abstract, in the sense that when it snows in Washington D.C., it is real snow that is falling in D.C.

However if this is the case, what is the power or purpose of describing hyperobjects in ways that they actually aren’t? Or is this, in fact, the wrong question? Maybe the notion that objects are or aren’t wholly one way or another, wholly one place or another is what hyperobjects challenge.

Toward the end of your paper you make this interesting claim, following from the thinking of the Arabic philosopher al-Kindi, that “causation is metaphorical. That's his term [al-Kindi’s]. Metaphor is just Greek for trans-lation,” you write. “Causality is much better thought as translation” (23). The claim here is that objects interact not simply by bumping into one another in a mechanistic manner but rather through translating one another. This translating relates back to interobjectivity and the mediatedness of all objects. In fact, you seem to be describing this kind of metaphorical causality when you write that “[i]nterobjectivity is the realm of gaps between objects, introduced when one object puts its footprint into another one, like a sound being sampled by a digital recorder” (16). Causality as translation means that objects affect one another by marking each other with “footprints.” But how to understand this footprinting?

One way that you seem to describe it in your paper is as a kind of “omorphizing.” So in discussing interobjectivity you write “[s]cale this up. It [interobjectivity] means that the idea that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is not only true but also inescapable. The table tables about the plate. The plate plates about the chicken. The roast chicken chickens about the gravy. And so on. Every entity x is x-omorphizing at least one other entity” (11). If I’m on the right track, this “x-omorphizing” would be what you mean by causality as translation. Causality is an object translating another object using itself as means of this translation (I realize that “using” here is a bit too active but hopefully you see what I mean). Cups cup about things. Humans human about things. And hyperobjects hyperobject about things.

Alright, it’s getting weird. But it seems to me that a number of interesting questions emerge from this weirdness. First, does this not help explain why hyperobjects are “metaphorically” or rather causally non-local? If hyperobjects operates causally by hyperobject-omorphizing the
objects they mediate, that is, they mediate objects through their own massive distribution in time and space, then to be in a causal relation with a hyperobject means being shaped by this kind of massive distribution? I’m caused by or entangled with the hyperobject of global climate change in a way that makes me something not entirely local. It makes my life, my thoughts, my body, my actions not just local. This would seem to be directly connected to the strange ethical imperative that hyperobjects seem to stamp us with: “no one will be meaningfully related to me” in 24.1 thousand years, yet “everyone will be affect by my smallest action” (25).

Here I think everything depends on these coordinates of meaning and affect. For isn’t it the case that I can’t meaningfully relate everything to me in the present, here and now, and yet everything is affect by what I do? I’d love to hear more about this dual impetrative because I think it’s a beautiful and provocative statement of the problem of ethics.

Second, and here I’m wading into waters I don’t see the bottom of, this notion of causality as translation seems to suggest that, to borrow a phrase from Adorno, there is actually a truth moment in correlation and correlationism. Objects cause, at least to some degree, in a correlationist manner, not in the sense that they all take the human-world correlate as central, but rather in the sense that they take their relationship to the world as primary.

If cups always cup about things, then can we say that they cupopomorphize
other objects, just as humans have anthropomorphized the world? Now, I realize that the viscous entanglement of all objects means that what it is to be a cup or a human is hardly discreet. Yet, if this tendency toward correlation is ontological, then how is Adorno not ultimately on to something when he says that one cannot get completely out of BS, or identitarian thinking, or correlationist thinking, which I take to be symptoms of one another. Does it turn out that the object human, whatever it emerges as, cannot help but be at least somewhat correlationist? This brings up a number of things I’d love to hear more about the biggest one being history, since it is precisely the ontologizing of history which Adorno associates with the attempt to get out of BS.

Let me be clear, I’m not trying to catch you in some “Ahha, see you’re still talking about a correlationist moment. You sneaky ooo guys.” Rather, I’m just interested to hear more about where you think we are at when we are no longer thinking this way. I think you are right in a way that Adorno didn’t see a way out of BS, but it’s important to remember why. It was because the positing of a way out, particularly through ontology, seemed to him to naturalize a certain history of the world, to naturalize this world and all its violence as the only possible world. This brings me to the question of how ethics emerges out of ontology.

I think there is something profoundly compelling about the claim that “[the] ethical imperative now comes from the side of the non-human” (25). And with the notion that hyperobjects and the profound interconnectedness and entanglement they reveal cannot be reconciled with any form of “self-interest theory” (25). It seems entirely right to me that ethics calls us to something beyond the human and beyond the individual.

However, the example of “the cigarette burning in a sequoia forest” sounds a little like a kind of common sense ethics in which people should just do what seems obvious. I don’t think this is all you mean, and so I was hoping to hear more. This brings me to a question about funk and specifically correlationism funk.

Now I must admit, part of my motivation for this question is that I’ve never written the word funk in a philosophical paper, and you inspired me to think it was high time I had. However more seriously, I wonder about the way in which abandoning correlationism actually opens up the world to the point of destruction. You write, “[c]orrelationism funk. Accepting a default mechanist materialism has consequences. Namely, the idea that philosophy can only talk about a very small island in a vast universe of unknowability, that is, the human–world correlate” (23). You argue that this leads to the destruction of the world, the destruction of any notion of foreground or background. It’s all foreground or it’s all background, but in either case it’s not the world anymore. But what do we mean here exactly? The background doesn’t go away, does it?

I mean isn’t it the case, to return to that troublesome cigarette in the sequoia forest, that I put out that cigarette because it’s foregrounded, here and now, as practically or ethically necessary? Isn’t this why hyperobjects are a little sad? That they make the world suck just a little bit more or a little bit differently? Why are hyperobjects sad unless they obscure as they clarify, obscure by clarifying. I love the notion that the more I know about things the stranger they get, and I think this certainly free up philosophy to talk about more stuff, but it also frees it up to be wrong about more stuff. Perhaps we could or should “just accept the humiliation of the human that’s been going on for several centuries now, the humiliation that constitutes the human as such” (25). I think this is right. But I also think this is going to hurt a bit and probably keep on hurting. So maybe you could say something about the darkness of this new ecological position?

Lastly, I want to thank you again for letting me translate some of your work. It’s been an absolute privilege. Although now you’ve got me wondering if you really had a choice about this translation at all? Maybe the footprints of this response were already there? Maybe all the footprints of all of our responses will have already been there.

Thank you.

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