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

Friday, March 18, 2016

The OOO Logic Square: A Map of Different Ontologies

I say this a lot in lectures and in classes but I'm not sure I've ever said it on my blog, and as I've been proofreading, I've come across quite a good statement of it. So here goes:

[I]t is possible to think essentialism differently, and indeed that this has already been tried, but rapidly deleted by cynical reason. To do so, I shall make a distinction between essentialism and the metaphysics of presence. Essentialism will here mean that there are real things, despite my thinking them or not. What is not necessary is that this reality be constantly present, underneath or behind appearances, or in Kantian terms—that is within dominant Anthropocentric humanist paradigms sponsored by Heidegger, Lacan and Foucault— in front of appearances insofar as my Dasein or my subjecthood or my discourse makes it real. This will enable me to draw up a logic square in which four positions, three well established (and of those three, two very well established indeed), and one almost entirely ignored, are possible. These positions are: (1) Essentialism plus metaphysics of presence; (2) Non-essentialism plus metaphysics of presence; (3) Non-essentialism minus metaphysics of presence and (4) (the road less traveled), Essentialism minus metaphysics of presence.

At Position (1) we have Essentialism plus metaphysics of presence. Nature, for instance, is essentialist and constantly present, occupying Position (1). So is reality according to an eliminative materialist: there is a reality which consists of atoms or other tiny things which are more real than medium sized things, by dint of the fact that they are constantly present, if only for a time, while humans and spoons are just epiphenomena. We’ll see that eliminative materialism is thus a reactive position within modernity, which is better exemplified by Position (2).

Position (1) is also exemplified by traditional Aristotelian and Platonic ontology, and also by some forms of Pre-Socratic thought such as Democritean atomism, or Thales’ notion that water underlay everything. Any form of reductionism occupies position (1). Crude Position (1) assertions are the sorts of thing that Aristotle blew up, things such as Anaximander’s idea of the apeiron or Heraclitus’ idea of fire as the most real thing that underlay the others. In many cases contemporary materialisms map uncannily well onto Pre-Socratic ideas, such that instead of Anaximander we have the physicist David Bohm and his idea of an underlying “implicate order” that transcends time and space; instead of Anaxagoras we have Arthur Eddington (and so on) and his interpretation of quantum theory, that everything is made of the mind, and so on. Yet Aristotle himself also obviously occupies Position (1), with his assertion that morphē is more real than anything else and that this is the substance that underlies accidents such as color.

At position (2) we have Non-essentialism plus metaphysics of presence. Position (2) thought considers the enemy to be essentialism, but neglects to address the metaphysics of presence. In this position we find some forms of new materialism and also correlationism. Nietzschean theories of becoming, which substitute a flux for static being, occupy Position (2). So here we have Elizabeth Grosz and Deleuze. There is no essence, but there is a flux that is more real than any instance of the flux, such as a milk bottle or a tiger. Correlationism also occupies Position (2), for two reasons. First, there is usually an unthinking acceptance of some default ontology, such as Aristotelian substance–accidents theory (Kant accepted this), or Newtonian spacetime, or atomism. Then there is also the meta- physics of a constantly present subject that subtends and makes real the things in themselves—the subject opens the refrigerator, if you like, to see if the light is on. Or in Heideggerian thought, Dasein enframes or opens the world. This is not the phenomenal subject, me with my clothes and my habitual patterns and my hairdo—but rather the transcendental one, the giant invisible ocean of reason floating somewhere behind my head. This inaccessible subject is more real than the phenomenal me, and I do not coincide with it. In this sense, correlationism from Kant to Heidegger does allow one kind of being to be weirdly essentialist: the (human) subject. Thus Dasein is not strictly subject to the metaphysics of presence. Still, Dasein in its copyright control of being—and German Dasein as the best kind of Dasein—exhibits some of the troubling features of the metaphysics of presence.

The journey from pre-modernity to modernity was the journey from Position (1) to Position (2). In light of Hume, and Kant’s grounding of Hume, Position (1) assertions—including even atomism, strictly—begin to look like uncritically held factoids. Position (2) is disturbing because it admits a certain amount of nothingness into the conversation. Consider the reaction to Kant called “psychologism.” Psychologism holds that logical assertions are percolations of brains. Thus logic is a set of rules for how healthy brains operate. Aside from the infinite regress of a brain determining whether a brain is healthy, we have the infinite regress of the idea “All concepts are brain percolations” being itself a brain percolation, on its own terms. Psychologism (John Stuart Mill and others) thus tries to wipe out the nothingness that is the most interesting aspect of what Kant unleashed. This is why Husserl is interesting—he reestablishes the Kantian gap by arguing that thoughts have a logical form that is independent of thinking. Thoughts are like fish in the ocean, or vi- ruses—or signs.

Materialism tries to elide nothingness. Ditto Hegel, this attempt to wipe out nothingness, the irreducible gap between phenomenon and thing, which I can’t locate in phenomenal spacetime. For Hegel, since I can think the phenomenon–thing gap, there is no gap. Thus there is a metaphysically present substrate of phenomena—there are no things except insofar as they are subsumed by Spirit or the Absolute. Rather than substrate, perhaps it would be better to call it a superstrate. While Position (1) favors reductionism, Position (2) favors the kind of upward reduction that Graham Harman has christened “overmining” (see Harman, 7–18). Thus despite its supposedly progressive or courageous assault on essences, Position (2) thinking tends simply to be a “new and improved” version of Position (1), substituting a Heraclitean Nature, where every- thing is fluid, for a reified Nature, in which everything is just real if it is natural. In Position (1) a tree is a tree, while in Position (2) a tree is a moment in the flow of becoming, or some kind of intra-active process, or an instant of tree-discourse, or a thing whose reality is posited by an absolute subject. There is no essential tree, but my tree-discourse, or Dasein, or History (capital H) or the relations of production or the subject make the tree real. A tree is a refrigerator and I have to open it to see whether the light is on inside. I “realize” it, and this realization is more real than the tree.

Position (2) is ironically the position from which I deny the validity of French feminism and ecofeminism, although many contemporary materialist feminists occupy Position (2). This is because for Position (2), French feminism is bad essentialism. Karen Barad’s thinking fits in Position (2) because it uses Niels Bohr, who applies Kantian correlationism to quantum theory as the architect of the Standard Model, for which measurement is more real than measured things—measurement at the quantum scale meaning “interaction with other quanta.” Bohr argued that it made no sense to make assertions about what exists at the quantum level—in effect he made Position (1) statements about things smaller than 10 to the minus 17 cm illegal. It’s not quite Protagoras, but perhaps it is something like a posthuman Protagoras: not that man is the measure of all things, but that measurement is the measure of all things.

At Position (2), the solid seeming islands of Position (1) start to melt and dissolve. So Position (2) mistakenly thinks that melting and dissolving are more real aspects of things than non-melting and non-dissolving. In a way, Position (2) just is modernity trying to wash off whatever factoids it imagines lurking in the pre-modern view, in the same way that you wash your hands maniacally once you have escaped from the shtetl to New Jersey—you wash your hands, thus making you susceptible to a virus you have been coexisting with forever, polio. The attempt to have a clean body and a clean mind becomes a magnet for more virulent strains of virus, and viral code. We’ll return to this theme.

Then we have Position (3), which is Non-essentialism minus the meta- physics of presence. At least here you are refraining from saying anything at all, since you hold that what comes out of your mouth will end up being ontotheology. Position (3) is deconstruction, and it has the virtue of refraining from harm. And of course it’s my continuing lineage. But it has the vice of allowing scientism (and other toxic forms of metaphysics) to continue unchecked, by abstaining from saying anything about reality.

Which leaves us with Position (4), which is weird essentialism, or Essentialism minus the metaphysics of presence. Existing means not being constantly present, as in deconstruction, where the process of meaning making is subject to différance and so on. Yet unlike deconstruction, I can say that things do exist, yet they exist insofar as they are shot through with nothingness. In a sense, Position (2) puts the nothingness of modernity in the wrong place—it believes that nothingness means there are no things as such, only processes or discourses or History or Geist and so on. Position (3) puts nothingness at the core of meaning, which is promising, since now at any rate I have decided that I can’t make a definitive pronouncement—I have done a judo move on my modernity tendency to want to achieve perfect geostationary orbit outside of reality, my satellite cameras positioned to capture everything. But Position (4) goes further. Position (4) puts the nothingness at the core of things—toothbrushes, lizards, smears of protein and bubbles.

There are things, says Position (4), but I can’t specify in advance what they are, so they are strange strangers, irreducibly uncanny. Since I can’t put them in advance into a box called life or non-life, for instance, what appears is a kind of spectral playground, a sort of charnel ground possibility space in which all kinds of necessarily partial objects float around. There is no top thing, such as History or God or the subject, and there is no bottom thing, such as matter, and there is no middle thing, such as environment or world. Since there are no top, bottom or middle things, there is no whole of which things are all components. Thus things are necessarily partial. There is another sense in which they are partial, which is that things are fragile—more on this in a moment. Position (4) is the position advocated in object-oriented ontology (OOO), and it is also resonant with some positions within French feminism and ecofeminism.

There are things, but they don’t come with a handy little dotted line that says “Cut Here” to separate the essence from the appearance. Yet the appearance is not the essence. So there is a weird essence that is and is not its appearance. A thing is strangely physical and semiotic at the same time. Thus weird essentialism is fully up to speed with Kant, for whom a raindrop is a raindrop, not a gumdrop (alas), but for whom the raindroppy phenomena I feel as wet droplets on my head, or even raindrop-ideas I can think about, are not the raindrop itself. Yet we have also decided that I am not the referee of realness, the adjudicator who gets allowed into the realness equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To do so would be to fall into Position (2), since for (2) there is an underlying metaphysics of presence, a presence that resides in the adjudicator. In a way, Position (2) is desperately trying to contain the explosion of things in the Anthropocene—fossils, evolution, geological time, biosphere, climate, capital, lifeforms without species or genus. It is trying to contain this explosion by restricting realness to some kind of magical adjudicator, or to some kind of underlying flux. Position (4) is not reactive against modernity.

I cannot assert that there just are things and that these things are truly constantly there, like Position (1). Lubricated by Position (3), I can instead say that there are things, and yet there is no top thing, no reality adjudicator. Another way of saying this is that every entity has what Heidegger calls Dasein, which means that an entity does not occupy time or space, but rather “times” and “spaces” in such a way that it is weirdly strung out, as in the case of a tiny yet visible tuning fork in a state of quantum coherence, both vibrating and not vibrating at the same time. The fork is both here and not here at once—it is not metaphysically present, since it is “breathing,” yet it is not just a processual blob that only looks like a tuning fork to me or to History: it is its own weird little vortex, its own weird little loop, a weirdly essentialist thing whose realness is precisely its trickster-like ability to be here and not here at the very same time.


D. E.M. said...

More dope.
I don't know if I'm coming in from left field here but this post helps me think about what some of my colleagues in queer theory talk about -- an essentialism that needs to be returned to in new ways, especially in relation to trans lives and gender expressions.

yoyo ma said...

Is this to be published somewhere?