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

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Swedish OOO in English

Thanks to Michael O'Rourke and his girlfriend Karin, who translated this.

Études (By Fredrik Österblom)
Translation by Karin Sellberg

Object Oriented ontology

There is a new turn appearing in continental philosophy. Linguistically oriented philosophy is abandoned in favour of realism and materialism. Individual things have turned attention away from processes and relations. Despite the connotations of the word “realism” this does not infer a return to order and common sense. Reversely, the new realism shows us a world that is stranger than our boldest fantasies and momentarily as eerie as the novels of H.P. Lovecraft. Through speculation and correlations the contours of a poetic and independent reality appears, for which man and language no longer is the absolute origin.

Speculative Realism and Correlationism

Object oriented ontology and speculative realism are two key concepts within this theoretical turn and they are often mixed up. Speculative realism is not truly a movement, but rather an umbrella concept which includes many different and often oppositional positions, among which object oriented ontology is one. The phrase “speculative realism” was coined in 2007 when a title was needed for a symposium held at Goldsmith’s College in London, where Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier and Ian Hamilton Grant took part.

Already in 1999 Graham Harman used the concept object oriented philosophy about his own work. His metaphysics are influenced by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, Heidegger’s theories of the tool-complex and Bruno Latour’s particular form of realism where electrons, apples, people, nation-states, Hamlet and round squares enjoy the same right to existence since they are all actors. All things have a practical influence on the world, although to a varying extent.

The common denominator for speculative realists is their opposition to correlationism. In the book Après la finitude (2006) Quentin Meillassoux describes correlationism as the conception that we can merely gain access to the correlation between thinking and being, never to either of them individually. Correlationism has been the common framework that has surrounded philosophy since Kant until today.

Ontological questions of what the world is like are transformed by correlationism to questions of what the world is like for us. This "us" varies significantly between different positions and can be as widely separate phenomena as reason, the logical form of language, discursive formations, regimes of signs, power structures and corporeal experiences. However, the origin in each of these cases is the interaction between man and the world. Humanism and anti-humanism are equally ensnared. Even if the autonomous subject is considered a chimera and attention is directed towards historical and linguistic circumstances the man/world correlation is privileged. Philosophy becomes a question of which correlation is the pivotal one. Meillassoux positions speculative philosophy in opposition to this: an attempt to think the absolute.

Object Oriented Ontology

The basis of Graham Harman’s realism can be condensed to two main arguments. The first point is that the world is comprised of individual entities of an infinite amount of sizes. Bacteria, art installations and political activist groups are all real objects. They can neither be reduced to small physical particles or linguistic and sensual phenomena. The second point is that these entities are more than the sum of their relations. Objects withdraw from direct relations. In the same way that the world exists regardless of our consciousness of it, every thing possesses an existence regardless of other things. The split between reality and sensual representation ceases to exclusively be a condition for the human subject and is expanded to be valid for all entities. Instead of only splitting consciousness and world an infinite amount of splits between each object and its object comprised surroundings.

The objects are as hopelessly withdrawn from each other as they are from our consciousness. The glass only experiences a caricature of the table it stands on, just like we only experience a caricature of the glass. The world is not merely a large lump of matter or phenomena; it is comprised of an infinite amount of objects that act as protagonists of their own existence. How the relationship between two non-human objects functions is ontologically as important a question as how the relationship between man and world is made up.

The writer and blogger Rasmus Fleischer has suggested that the object oriented thought processes in Swedish should be called “nysaklig” [new-thingly] philosophy or “saklig” [thingly] ontology [Translator’s note: See The suggestion is part of R.F.’s post “Verkets Verkande”, “The Work of the Work”, which primarily discusses Marxism and copyright law. The term is particularly appropriate since the word “saklig” in Swedish also means “realistic” or “to the point”], with allusions to the 1920’s German movement “Neue Sachlichkeit” [New Objectivity]. This suggestion is made in order to avoid associations with the subject/object dualism that the original title infers. Thingly philosophy attempts to move beyond the compulsion to let one concept follow another, in order to introduce one single ontological category. Whether the category is called object or subject becomes irrelevant since the entities in this category constantly shift between what is experienced and what experiences, what moves and what is moved.

The OOO Movement

Recently an object oriented movement has taken shape, and it stretches far beyond the philosophical discipline. Levi Bryant is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in Texas, with a past as a Lacanian psychoanalyst. His major area of interest was Gilles Deleuze’s philosoph(ies) before he formed a close collaboration with Harman and Bryant developed his own version of object oriented ontology by the name of onticology. A large part of Bryant’s serious work is carried out directly on the blog Larval Subjects. He recently came out with the book Democracy of Objects.

Ian Bogost is a games developer and critic with a philosophy and literature background. He uses object oriented ontology both for the theoretical aspects of his work and for the production of computer games. The games he has taken part in developing deal with generically unusual concepts like security check points in airports, bad working conditions and the global oil market. Bogost focuses on application and specific individual objects rather than universal principles and his version of the discipline is entitled "alien phenomenology".

Another writer who recently has been tied to the movement is the professor of ecology and literature, Timothy Morton. He has authored books like Ecology without Nature (2009) and The Ecological Thought (2010) and maintains a blog with the same title as his 2009 book. Since the political theorist Jane Bennett published her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things last year, the affinities between her thinking and the object oriented movement have been unearthed and acknowledged by both parties. And finally there are the literature and medieval scholars Eileen Joy and Jeffrey Cohen, who write on the blog In The Middle. This is the core of a movement, the peripheries of which are fast becoming wider and wider.

Consequences and Applications

For the reader who approaches object oriented philosophy in search of emancipatory means two advantages immediately emerge. 1. If objects, man included, are not constituted by their relations they will never fully be trapped in their circumstances. Considering their withdrawn existence, they can never be reduced to their exposed properties, their creative history or their function in a larger structure either. People are, like all objects, always more than their collective contexts. There is always something lurking behind all relations and properties – something with the capacity to break free, surprise and entice us.

2. The thesis of the withdrawnness of objects places the indirect relations that are actually maintained in focus. Relations are taken seriously as philosophical problems. They are not ready-made explanations, but something that needs to be explained. A compulsion to carefully examine how social entities are constituted and maintained emerges. All components concerned must be observed and no object can be reduced to an expression of deeper or more “real” levels of reality.

Anthropocentrism has concealed several important aspects of the world, and even some components of our social reality. In an interview for Levi Bryant argues that the fact that critical theory has had a great influence on sociology and political theory has meant that some pivotal social factors have been excluded from the theoretical models. The social sphere is explained through phenomena like consciousness, power, language and ideology while other types of objects merely serve as the recipients of the meaning we project on them. In reality, there is no social sphere that precedes the objects – they build up and constitute the social. Even the non-human objects act of their own accord; they announce their existence by producing considerable differentiation. This is why we need theories that are capable of acknowledging the objects’ truly real existence and of considering their relations with each other as well as with people.

Practical Specificities

Until recently, Anglo-American philosophers within continental philosophy have mainly commented on and interpreted the great French and German thinkers’ work. Levi Bryant argues that instead of forming independent theories, we have developed an exegetic or even hagiographic theoretical industry. Object oriented ontology forms the first movement within continental philosophy that is dominated by Anglo-American thinkers. They develop their own theories and dare to open up debates with the great canonical thinkers, rather than just being their humble interpreters. The first encounter with the new realist texts invokes an impression of refreshing directness.

Another thing that differentiates the object oriented movement from earlier philosophical directions is its presence online. [Translator’s note: the Swedish word used here is “nätvaro”. It combines the words for presence (“närvaro”) and the net (“nätet”)] As previously indicated, most of the key thinkers are active bloggers and the theories have to a considerable extent emerged on the internet. Harman speaks about a "blogopolis" and argues that the blogosphere is not a concept that exists in opposition to books and articles, but rather has its own position in the scholarly “city”. Blogs occupy the position that cafés alone have previously taken up. The blogopolis is a room that enables exchange of news and ideas without delay and gives rise to new acquaintances and collaborations. Through the course of history certain cities, like Athens, Jena and Paris have become the generators of new philosophical developments. At this point in time the blogopolis appears to be our most vital collective space, and in connection to this our most interesting philosophy develops (Ray Brassier would most decisively disagree, but that is his prerogative).

Posted by Fredrik

1 comment:

Henry Warwick said...

thanks! great synopsis of the basic ideas in OOO. Much appreciated!