“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, May 9, 2011

I Am Touched

People do tend to default to the idea that causality is a mechanism that underlies things, and that this mechanism involves physical clunking of some kind. As in this recent comment:

[H]ow can we say that the object called Tim Morton and the hyperobject (assemblage) called ‘global warming’ don’t actually ‘touch’?

But as I shall argue in Realist Magic, causality is an aesthetic event that floats ontologically on top of objects, in between them. Touching in this sense is a purely aesthetic event. There’s not all that much difference between a billiard ball touching a billiard ball and me being touched affectively.

Of course I can’t concede that objects “touch” or “don’t touch” in the way described. To do so would be to subscribe to a very different ontology. Furthermore, I think my ontology is more congruent with the best that we know about physical reality, than clunk causality is.

At a profound level, touching registers a failure to engage, a non-touching. Touching, which is what a billiard ball perceives when a billiard ball smacks it, is at a quantum level the failure of particles to bust through resistance wells in molecular lattices. When something touches something, even when it seems to penetrate that something, it’s not really fusing with it. Its quanta are failing to fuse with it. That’s what touching is.

Touching, no matter how intimate, involves a necessary aesthetic distance. A faint echo of this is found in metaphor, in which two unlike things are brought close—but not so close that they become the same thing, otherwise metaphor would cease to operate. And in metonymy, in which relations of contiguity imply distances.

People usually think of causality as a clunk that breaks through the aesthetic screen, like Doctor’s Johson’s boot. I argue that this kind of clunking is one aesthetic phenomenon among many. I am touched, for instance, right at this very moment, by gravity waves emanating from the beginning of this universe. A chemical solution can be touched by a catalyst. Soft tissue is touched by high energy photons such as gamma rays, giving rise to mutagenic effects.

Many phenomena are nonlocal, such as what I perceive when global warming causes my eyes to itch. Many are nonlocal in a strong sense (quantum theoretical), such as the ways fruit flies smell or the way birds navigate. In no sense given above is physical touching involved. The opposite in fact: and this is what makes these processes all the more intimate.

To make physical proximity in 3D space the one sole true metaphor (or anti-metaphor) of causality is to think that Doctor Johnson’s boot has more efficacy than a gravity wave. I doubt it.


Ruth Solomon said...

Depends what you mean by affect- affect can be non-local- like a resonance that chimes simultaneously- everywhere and nowhere rather than clunks along from here to there. Intervals- the distance between hands, between bodies, between random floss. The big bang- a touch in reverse- from containment to expansion. The "off" touch- making space- the breath expanding- attentional dissipation- a form of play that induces a vacuum and a potential. Is this movement? Touch may be subsidiary. But it may induce something it in no way controls.

Timothy Morton said...

That's nice Ruth. I agree with you. Aesthetic effects could be nonlocal--even in a quantum sense. An electron can respond to a cylinder of electromagnetic energy, even when it doesn't physically touch the cylinder.

Ruth Solomon said...

I think we need to talk about tensions and releases- pulses- what "space", "Matter", "Energy" actually do- or how they are affected as they transform from one to another. The issue is not than really "To touch or Not to touch, that is the question etc.."-It is more about thresholds and how these emerge as kind of pressure velocities between diff speeds that craft ridges, boundaries, and points of bounce, absorbtion or meshing- a word you like to use- within this momentum. Bohm talks of "Soma-Significant processes". Levels of Soma; the body- and Significance; meaning are entwined or enfolded into one another. Nervous systems, musculature, breath, movement, intention, Sensory registration are emeshing through one another- only stopping into partitioned categories where we could even consider touch and no-touch as as useful categories at relatively fleeting moments.

Timothy Morton said...

Yes and I love Bohm, but I think with Einstein that those things are emergent properties of objects, which are ontologically prior.