(I try not to edit things once they’re published, but I couldn’t resist adding a Chevy Impala to this blog.)
It may not quite be Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, as Graham Harman’s blog post title suggests, but Chris Vitale has clearly had a change of heart, a dropping of resistance that’s resulted in a much warmer embrace of object-oriented ontology. The latter has now become, for Chris, a “fellow-traveller,” a compatible and friendly sparring partner at the very least, and certainly no longer an opponent. The difference between OOO and the process-relational views Chris, Steve Shaviro, I, and others have espoused is not one of radical incommensurability but one of emphasis, language, and not much more (as I’ve said myself, for instance here.)
In a series of two posts, Chris announces that change of heart — in terms that remind me a little of Tim Morton’s actual conversion on the road to Damascus — and then fleshes out the main differences and how they are collapsing. What follow are my initial thoughts on Chris’s posts. I’ll be out of commission for the rest of the day and most of tomorrow, and these thoughts are written quickly and imperfectly.
Chris’s change of heart comes from a recognition that semiotics is not incompatible with OOO, even though, as he perceptively argues, OOO’s “founding gesture” was a rejection of the “linguistic turn” that dominated cultural theory and philosophy for a large chunk of the last century. (This, at least, is how I think OOO appeared to cultural theorists like Chris and myself.) He’s also right that Deleuze was the key “mediator” between post-structuralism and Speculative Realism (which is why some recent disavowals of Deleuze strike me as premature).
His view that, as he puts it, “the Whiteheadian-Deleuzian side of things and the post-Heideggerian-phenomenological side of things will at some point meet in some sort of middle” is one that I also shared, in principle, if the details might have been a little different. Regarding those details, I’ve always thought of the process-relational view I’ve been working on as a form of phenomenology, with Heidegger woven through it, if not as centrally as are Whitehead and Deleuze. One of the most basic commonalities between OOO-ists and process-relational theorists, all along, has been a deeply felt concern to go well beyond anthropocentric assumptions about who or what qualifies as a “subject.” For OOO-ists that’s done, in part, by first jettisoning the subject altogether and calling everything an object, and then redefining objects in ways that preserve the full richness of experience.
For Whitehead, on the other hand, experience is central, so the latter backtracking isn’t necessary. Rather, at least in my own variation of a Whiteheadian ontology, subjects and objects are part of a dynamic that never rests — they are poles arising in response to each other, moment to moment, with subjectivity (subjectivation, in my terms) arising in and through the prehension of objects, and in turn becoming objective in the presence of the next set of subjectivations, and so on. There is a kind of ongoing relay of properties between subjects and objects, with the only thing that’s “real” being that movement between the poles — a movement that proceeds through the prehensions/concrescences as these occur, mediated by specific kinds of sensory and other capacities. This process is a semiotic one (in the Peircian sense), so that meaning is constantly arising in and through it. Objects take on meanings — they become “interpretants,” as Peirce called them. All of that is quite compatible with a Merleau-Pontian (and Uexkullian) spin on phenomenology, though it decenters it in certain key respects.
There is, then, at the finest level of reality, an ongoing circulation, a vibration, by which subjectivity and objectivity continue to arise wherever reality arises. You could say that, in its horizontal dimension, the universe appears as a vibratory oscillation, a sinuous wave, continually generating its own oscillation, in many directions all at once. In its vertical dimension (which is where I follow Peirce), each of these oscillations, if sliced into, contains a firstness, which is something irreducible; a secondness, which is the responsiveness and interactivity, the one-thing-arising-in-the-presence-of-and-after-another-ness; and a thirdness, which is the proliferation into, or consummation as, meaning, habit, and regularity, that builds worlds and makes the universe a genuine universe. In the midst of this movement forward and outward, entities take shape and acquire consistency, and these are the things (loosely speaking) that OOO-ists call objects. What’s real, though, is the experientiality amidst that arising, morphogenetic shape-taking, and habit-forming. The latter accounts for the outward appearance of things, but that’s always just one side of the experiential relation.
All of that needs a lot more explaining, and my own ideas remain only partly worked out, but I hope that those who know their Whitehead and Peirce, at least, will not be squirming too much at the way I put their ideas to use. (I’ve been thinking I should set aside my next book project, the one I’ve been working on for years since before my current cinema book got started, and instead do a short summation of my own process-relational theory, just to get it out in some published form.)
I would argue that all of that is very Latourian, though Latour doesn’t develop anything like a full-fledged ontology. That’s where Harman’s metaphysicization of Latour has been such an important intervention — which is what got me into this whole discussion in the first place. My decision to blog about OOO was, at the outset, a response to Harman’s book The Prince of Networks, and if I was, as Chris suggests, among the first to begin laying out a series of criticisms of OOO (I think Steve Shaviro was there back then as well, and no doubt others), I’m heartened to see that those criticisms have borne fruit at least through Chris’s own work.
What I want to suggest, in any case, is that philosophy works a bit like that circulation I’ve just described. The whole debate between the objectological and the relational approaches, like all such good debates, has that back-and-forth vibratory quality that I’ve described as being at the center of things, the motor of the universe. Harman — whose UCLA video I haven’t watched yet, nor have I kept up with his prolific writing, so I’m relying on Chris’s account and Graham’s own assenting nod here — seems to be quite masterful at the work of philosophy, the continual chipping away and developing of one’s arguments in the face of adversity and resistance, while sticking to one’s guns in public about it (remaining true to the overall package, the brand name one has chosen for it, etc.). This is very smart and is serving him and the whole project very well. He may be incorporating language and/or insights from Badiou now, among others (the talk of sets, etc., though again I’m not sure about this, and he can clarify that if he wishes), all the while as he develops an increasingly sophisticated account of what it is that his objects do. At any rate, there is this interchange — the way in which Harman and Bryant continue to refine and develop their objectologies in response to critics, and the way some of those critics in turn (including Steve Shaviro, Chris, and myself) continue to develop our own things in response to them — that constitutes the process of concept-development that we call philosophy. This is an example of what I mean when I say that what’s ultimately real is the dynamic interaction between the things that arise continually as subjectivations and objectivations. We are always in process, and the best way to be in process is to be in good, respectful and mutually affirming (if mutually challenging) process. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t we, that objects aren’t objects; it just means that process is what objects are fundamentally about (which is why I always think of objects and subjects in the same breath).
Chris captures some of this circulatory quality in his characterization of OOO’s emergence as a critical response to the “linguistic turn,” and with his suggestion that the linguistic and semiotic is returning now, sneaking its way back into the OOO discussion — partly through Tim Morton’s hyperobjects, and partly through changes in emphasis in Harman’s and Bryant’s work (and probably Bogost’s, though I don’t know it well enough). I’m very encouraged by that development. Part of what makes this discourse so rich, I think, is that it’s not just philosophers talking among philosophers — it’s also cultural theorists like Tim, Chris, Steve, and myself (though my theorizing has always slid around on the cusp of the cultural and the natural). And that’s what I liked about the Claremont conference, even though I’ve only been able to observe it via Graham’s (heroically) generous live-blogging of it.
All that said, Chris’s second post raises various issues that I’ll need to think some more about — for instance, about the ontological status of ideas (which he calls physical things). I’ll also be the first to admit that my own ontological thinking needs much more work. In many ways it’s still half-baked, since it’s only something I’ve done on the side while grappling with empirical things like films, media objects, spiritual experiences, and the like (always in relation to landscapes and territoriality in one sense or another).