What a lovely, touching post Tim Morton has written about his conversion to object-oriented ontology. Since my days of doing religious-studies fieldwork, I’ve always gotten ripples of that nameless mixture of joy, pleasure, and sad melancholy — that feeling of being existentially touched, even pierced — whenever I’ve been around people undergoing conversion experiences (whether they were rolling around on the floor during the Toronto Airport ‘Blessing’, or doing Stan Grof’s LSD-without-the-LSD holotropic breathwork). There’s something about the quality of being around someone who’s undergoing radical, life-changing shifts (or what seem that way at the moment) in their understanding, feeling, appreciation, sensibility, and state of consciousness all at once, which is what religious conversion amounts to. It doesn’t matter that I don’t share their conviction, or may not have any overlap with it at all; I can still relate to that piercedness, that sense of being throttled to the core and finding realignment from the bottom up. (Funny that my fingers keep wanting to spell that word “peircedness“…)
What I like about Tim’s note is the upfrontness by which intellectual conversion is acknowledged as religious in nature (though he doesn’t use that term per se). That doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong, and probably central, intellectual component to it; but it’s religious because it’s more than just intellectual. Conversion, at one and the same time, brings sudden comfort — the comfort of having “arrived home,” without having even known that one was away — and a radical transvaluation that involves a feeling of total openness and vulnerability, a stripping of the self to only the naked essentials, the things that really matter.
I don’t share Tim’s sentiments about OOO specifically, but I think it’s important for intellectuals to be able to reflect on their thinking in ways that acknowledge these deeper impulses at play in our lives. Why does a scholar become a Marxist, a Lacanian, a feminist, a Deleuzian, an OOOist? For the same reasons that we all, scholars and non-scholars alike, change our thinking — which means for a messy, hybrid conflux of reasons, some of which aren’t reasoned at all. Sometimes the reasons are purely or largely selfish and convenient — it makes sense to ally oneself with a particular professor or thinker, because that person seems cool, hip, hot, chic, different, is on the cutting edge or the crest of the wave, has lots of funding coming through, etc. But the best conversions are the ones that are free of short-term instrumentality.
I can’t say I’ve gone through radical conversions anytime recently. My thinking has evolved over the years, realigning itself periodically but not dramatically, at least since my days of being a truth-seeking undergrad, when the hits, the rushes, always seemed to come a lot quicker and reverberate deeper. So what I’ve been calling “process-relational” thinking is something I haven’t “converted to” except in that longer sense of recognizing that this term works for the things I’ve felt all along, or for a long time. I’ve expressed a bit of that evolution here and there (including on this blog, for instance here and here), but what the intellectual work boils down to, for me, is finding a hook for hanging one’s hat (or one’s name) for the time being.
The process-relational thing works for me, because all is process (nothing is unchanging), because without relations there really is nothing, and because the combination of the two — how things relate over time, and how I fit into those relational processes and affect them through my actions — gets at everything that needs getting at. I could, of course, call it by a variety of other names (from pro-life Buddhism to animism and pantheism, and, with caveats, to the Perennial Philosophy), but all such names come with their own historical conjunctures of issues to work out and unbind oneself from.
A process-relational view, as I see it right now, can be boiled down to two claims:
(1) Dependent origination, i.e., an ontology of interdependence: Nothing exists on its own, everything passes into something else. This is the Nagarjunian, Heraclitean point, which I believe is very close to the “central tenet” Morton identifies in OOO, that “objects withdraw,” as long as we understand that they don’t withdraw into themselves (what is it that would be withdrawing into what in that case?); they simply withdraw. Nature, as Heraclitus (and Hadot) said, loves to hide; so do all things. (And by the same token, they love to show themselves, even if just a little, now and then, and some more than others. They wink in and out, out of love/desire. That’s the nature of things.) That’s what makes me think that OOO is ultimately process-relational, despite all the words I myself have expended on debating its focus on objects. It’s also, incidentally, what I think OOO shares with Derrida, as long as you remember that Derrida’s focus on words/texts could be substituted with a focus on objects; the world, after all, includes both.
(2) This-momentness: The core of our being is the ethical call in this very moment to engage with that which we find ourselves interacting with, and to do it in a way that recognizes our responsibility for what emerges from it. This is the Whiteheadian point, and the Deleuzian (and Bergsonian) one: we are, in this moment, becoming, actualizing; we draw out and in, folding over from one enfoldment to the next. The same is true for all things.
Blessed be (as my pagan friends say).