Tim Morton writes beautifully. His “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones,” published in the most recent issue of Continent, is a beautiful illustration of this. I could say he writes poetically, but that would be suggesting that his writing is not itself poetry, but only looks and feels like poetry — which would mean succumbing to a distinction between the essence of Morton’s writing and its appearance, and to a rift between the two, that I’m not prepared to commit to (though I think that Morton is).

Morton distinguishes in his article between the poetry, aesthetics, or “performance art” of Hakim Bey’s writing on “temporary autonomous zone,” and its politics. The first he calls “ambiguous,” and, if my reading of the article is correct, this ambiguity allows Bey’s notion of an “undifferentiated oneness-of-being” to escape the objection that it is a form of reductionism or holism (undermining or overmining, in OOO terms), or of onto-theology (to use a more Continental-philosophical form of dismissal).

But if it’s this distinction between the aesthetic and the political (/philosophical/ontological) that saves Bey from becoming poor philosophy (or ontology, or politics), I fear that this distinction may also be the one that would ultimately save Morton, or OOO, or anyone else from a similar fate. If the essence of a philosopher’s argument — the distilled, pure logic of his or her propositions — can be separated from the images, metaphors, and other guises in which those arguments come clothed, then we have already accepted part of that logic itself. The separation is a proposition, and it’s one whose acceptance carries costs.

For instance, if beauty is separable from form, if it is a matter of appearance-to-another-entity that is only contingently related to the properties of the object in question — if beauty is, in other words, on the side of appearance and not of essence (or existence; Morton uses both of these terms to contrast with appearance) — then it seems to me that beauty would not be able to truly take hold of an object. Its action would only be superficial. But is this how we respond to beauty?

Process-relational philosophies see the aesthetic as just as essential to a thing as the ontological, philosophical, or political. This means that (for us) the poetry of Morton’s article — say, the image of a “gigantic coral reef of withdrawn entities” — can hardly be separated from the prose, which in this case is the list of claims being made: about objects withdrawing from access, about a rift between the essence of an object and its “mere appearance,” about the “coral reef [not] going anywhere” and that “once you have discovered it, you can’t un-discover it,” about “entities in the reef” constituting “all there is,” and about “some objects” maintaining themselves “through rigidity and brittleness” while others do not. The reef isn’t merely an example or an image for the philosophical point; it is the way the point is able to be made. Without coral reefs and polypses, maggots and cheeses, liars, Tibetan Autonomous Regions, police states and circuses (all of which make appearances in Morton’s article), our capacity to think things becomes impoverished.

There is, in a process-relational perspective, no “rift” between essence and appearance, but rather something more like a tension, a movement or a slippage, and it is this movement that defines the thing itself. A process-relationist would agree with Morton (wholeheartedly) that there is no absolute space or time in which a thing has its being; rather a thing “spaces” and “times.” (I’m glad to see that Tim isn’t so shy of verbs anymore.) And that a thing exudes or “emits” its own “zone.” It is this temporality and this zoneness that renders any object “temporarily autonomous.”

But a process-relationist sees relationality, which is to say movement between, the reaching out, drawing away from, and negotiation of a spacedness and a rhythm in mutuality, as essential to the timing and the spacing or zoning. A thing doesn’t simply emit a zone, irrespective of whatever else is in its vicinity; it zones (or spaces) relationally. Its time is a time of movement-with. A thing does not merely withdraw from all access, away to some hidden cave of its own solitude. It withdraws in the same movement as it draws forward, elsewhere. It is on the move, ever withdrawing from capture by another (perhaps, and even by itself too), but this means ever moving toward another other, not (again) toward its own lonesome selfhood. It is relational movement of one kind or another, and it is its particular kind of movement, with its peculiarities, idiosyncracies, internal complexities and contradictions, that defines it.

One can ask what this thing brings with it in its movement, and whether that “bringing with” might not be the body, the carapace, or indeed the essence of the object. But this is not much different from the question the objectologist has to deal with when asked which is the “real” object: the coral reef, the community of polyps making up its heads, each head itself, or something else? The movement of the coral reef is different from the movement of the polyps; the one takes account of different things than the other, and brings different things with it (or tries to) in this taking account and responding to things.

And in this taking account is the aesthetic, which is the lure and the drive, the dynamic tension, the rift if you will, that keeps the entity generating itself, and changing itself (while being changed by others) in and through its generations. The aesthetic is not secondary, derivative, and separate from the thing itself, a thing that can somehow withdraw to an inaccessibly safe region beyond art, beauty, appearance and perception. Without the aesthetic, the image, the metaphor, the clothing, there is no object because there is no dynamic entanglement with other things, and it is this entanglement, this relational tension, that provides the occasion for the becoming of the entity as it arises, grows, moves, changes, and exhausts itself.

(Note that I use the terms “entity” and “thing” because I don’t want to slide back into the debate over whether these should be called “objects” or, say, “subjects.” Morton acknowledges that OOO-ists’ use of the term “object” for all entities is “somewhat provocative,” which suggests to me that this is part of their objectological aesthetic. It is, I think, strategic, a matter of appearance, rather than essential to the project of OOO, a realist project that process-relational philosophies, for the most part, share.)

Then there are the ends of objects. “When the rift between appearance and essence collapses,” Morton writes, “that is called destruction, ending, death. [...] Essence disappears into appearance. I become the memories of friends.” In process-relational (and, specifically, Whiteheadian) terms, when the prehensive subject-superject collapses into pure objectivity without remainder, when there is no more movement save for what is taken from a thing by another thing, the thing is over. But a process-relationist would exercise extra caution to remind readers that there is no essence, no “I,” that continues across and behind all appearances until one day it collapses into mere appearance. The essence itself is never entirely fixed; it is a manner of changing, moving, becoming.

How, then, would a process-relationist define beauty and poetry? Neither is separate from the essence of a thing, because they are inherent to the process by which it essences, by which it posits itself in the coming to know of others. Morton’s rift between essence and appearance (a rift that he acknowledges is within an object) is, for a process-relationist, less like a chasm than a driving tension. It is a kind of constitutive gap between the receding (virtual) possibilities of the past and the (equally virtual) lure of the future, between the becoming-object of a thing falling away from actuality and its becoming-subject in and through actualization, a gap between what the object (thinks/feels it) is and what it (thinks/feels it) is not. (The “thinking/feeling” is important here, if we use the words rather loosely, since it is what the object, any object, is doing as it moves.)

Movement across this gap is aesthetic and political; it is a movement of feeling that is also a movement intended to realize something in relation to the world around it. It is an always moving gap which the thing is aiming (perhaps) to close but never does. And when that gap does finally close, pfffft, no more thing. Just like that. (Which is just as Morton says.)

The Buddha called it enlightenment (sort of).

But then he, or his interpreters, also allowed for a difference between essence and appearance. This is what’s known as the doctrine of Two Truths, the Conventional (or Relative) and the Ultimate, the first being that there really is such a thing as this, and as that, and the second being that there really isn’t. We might think of the first as the truth of appearance, and the second as the truth of essence. But the second holds that things have no essence — that the only essence is the conditioned arising of all things. There’s a much longer discussion here, which I’ll avoid right now, but the point is that essentialism and relativism (or constructivism) are not opposed once we realize the processuality of all things. Madhyamika Buddhists, and others after them, realized this long ago.

There is, or ought to be, room in philosophy today for a school of thought that holds that there is a rift between the conventional (appearance) and the ultimate (essence), and for another that holds that the two are reconciled, for the moment in and through each moment (and movement), in practice. (Of course every momentary reconciliation is elusive, which is why we keep moving.) The first of these is an object-oriented philosophy that directs its gaze to the objects and their appearances. The second is a process-relational philosophy that directs its gaze to the living, the becoming, the praxis by which all subjects deal with the appearances of other subjects (and of themselves). And in practice neither the objectologists nor the processualists ignore what the others make central in their analyses. They are simply slicing into the wood at a different angle, one from the side and the other from the top. Or one taking snapshots of the river and the other scanning all around from their own swimming bodies.

In any case, the making of sufficient space for both schools (among others) is a matter of good spacing and good timing — good zoning.

Thanks to Tim for provoking these thoughts. I would encourage readers to read the article, which is very good.

[Afterword: I know I'm generalizing about "us" process-relationists as I probably should not, both because not all of those whom I'm generalizing about use the term itself, and because not all of those who do use the term would necessarily agree with all I have to say. But, hey, they can say that themselves.]

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