Our morning plenarist is Jane Bennett, whose work has been discussed extensively on this blog before (e.g., here).
Introduction by Kennan Ferguson: will Jane B. be throwing down a gauntlet?
Jane Bennett: “Systems & Things: a materialist and an object-oriented philosopher walk into a bar…”
Rich philosophical tradition of engaging materialities: Spinoza’s conatus, Diderot’s cosmos as spiderweb of vibrating threads, Thoreau’s wildness, Lucretius’s swerving primordia, Serres. Experiences underlying book “Vibrant Matter.”
Uncanny task: to see what happens if this call from things is taken seriously. Things can hail us. How do these transmissions work? Phenomenology, cognition, updated versions of Renaissance sympathetic causalities.
But today’s focus will be on the internal difference in this debate: between the Heideggerian and Deleuzian streams. Earthier eco-materialists (like me/JB) lean more toward D&G; OOOs (Harman and Morton, here today) focus on Heidegger’s withdrawal. Objects – “weird entities withdrawn from access yet somehow manifest” (Morton) – could not hope for more staunch defenders.
Withdrawal; none of the entities are wholly present to each other. Objects are coy, leaving hints, alluding to an inscrutable reality behind the evident, playing hide and seek. This object is intended as a repudiation of holisms, including assemblage theories, ecophilosophies, systems and process theories.
What turns politically and ethically on OOO’s strong claims about the apartness of objects? What is at stake? Both/all parties here share their reaction to the social constructionism of the 1990s.
Networks/relations/negotiations are golden calves; OOOs enjoy smashing them. But the stakes are higher: Harman’s “Aesthetics as First Philosophy” on holistic, boundary-blurring webs – a prejudice to approach world as complex networks rather than integers. But is this just a claim that OOO is more rationally defensible? Or is OOO’s prejudice a privileging of the mysterious objects? What, then, are the virtues of the latter?
But is there a need to choose between objects and relations? Why not a theory that toggles between both, with objects as swirls of matter that hold themselves together long enough to vie with others?
This is just what passe philosophers D & G do in A Thousand Plateaus. Neither assemblage nor plane of consistency qualify as a “relational wildfire” (Harman). D & G focus on so many objects, nothing inconsistent with claim of a differential between inside and outside. “ATP” also shows that not all theories of relationality, even if monistic, are holistic. Connectionism (W. James/W. Connolly) figures relations as loose and incomplete, punctuated by litter, a world in the making.
Relations’ capacity to produce effects. Consumerist culture still needs reminding of fragile, fractious interconnectedness of earthly bodies. Ecological/economic foregrounding of these issues is important: don’t throw out relations with holist bathwater. Why focus on aloof objects?
On occasion, however, Harman theorizes communication between objects. Problem for Harman is how they withdraw from communication. A Latourian horizontalizing of the ontological plane OOOs allow ecological sympathies to come to the fore (esp. for Morton).
Morton’s “Hyper-objects”: For Morton, objects are ontologically prior to relations; for Deleuze flowing liquids become templates for everything. Morton marvels at slow slide of syrup out of its bottle. JB’s nonhumanism doesn’t allow us to completely eliminate our human conatus.
Morton: no model of the whole can help us cope with hyper-objects, e.g. plutonium, global warming, whose ahuman time-scales unravel the very notion of entity and render us moot. We need another basis for decisions about a future to which we are hardly connected. JB: But “mindblowing” and “ahuman timescales” mean we can stretch ourselves to think these timescales and systems (incl. capitalism).
A reason for OOO’s rejection of relationism is that it distracts us from non-relation of objects. But what are the effects of this distraction? Object-orientedness is a (Foucauldian) technique of self that works against the will to truth. But OOP has no monopoly on this goal; contemporary materialisms also can do this. Why reject materiality? Matter is not just a flat, passive substrate. Matter forms eccentric assemblages, noisy systems, give rise to new forms.
Harman claims such philosophies can’t account for change. But systems can host an undetermined surplus, a more-than, an account of emergence of novelty.
For Harman, objects and things are the same. For JB, “thing” or “body” is better as a marker of individuation, smell and movement of mammal to the tick. To disrupt the political parsing of active/manly subjects and passive objects duality. And subject-object frame is unfriendly to ecological awareness.
Texts as special bodies: Literary bodies are affected by other bodies; quotes from Morton. Texts’ effectivity as a function of distributed body of these bodies. Whitman: poetry, if enmeshed in fortuitous assemblage of other bodies, can have material effects on them. “Love the earth and sun and the animals…” quote (1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass). Texts as bodies that light up by rendering human perception more acute.
Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake: “The warped flooring of the lair…” quote [ai: a better object list than any I've seen!!...]
Important stake of NH Turn: to help us live more sustainably with less violent to nonhuman bodies, and to feel the connections binding our fate to theirs.
Q & A:
Comment @ Joycean slip from “literature” to “litter.” Literature as litter; litter as literature.
Comment on withdrawal of objects: as a useful way to understand that communication happens not through words, symbols or material technologies but through affects and intuitions… JB: but “withdrawal” focus suggests that people always already relate to each other epistemologically. [ai: Disagreement between speakers over whether OOO allows intimacy at all. Questioner seems to think it does. With JB, I don't see how either.]
Q @ Francois Jullien’s “Propensity of Things”: Chinese philosophy having these discussions as well… JB: came to Jullien through Machiavelli’s “Fortuna,” virtuous prince needing to cultivate attention to indeterminate systems and things force. Q-er: recommends Ames and Hall’s “Focusing the Familiar” (Confucian text on Zhong-yong). JA: becoming a good reader of the wave.
Q @ OOO’s political implication due to focus on individual selves. Thesis of withdrawal doesn’t just pertain to human-sized objects, but also to social systems. Tension on the left between anarchists and socialists (creating macro-systems); OOO allows both levels of scale, irreducibly real individuals and collectivities. Also OOO isn’t completely antipathetic to intimacy; there could be intimacy objects out there.
JB: There’s an effectivity of relations that’s not tie-able to objects; incipiences and activities/effectivities with outcomes that are functions of the action. But every theory can have multiple political implications; depends on assemblages they get caught up in. My critique is really an aesthetic response; my (JB) response is rooted in an ecological-1970s imaginary that I don’t want to throw out completely.
Q on Twitter from Ian Bogost (as opposed to the Ian Bogost in the room [laughter]) on sustainability… JB: Of course “what is sustainable?” question is fraught. But we have to tread more lightly on the earth, be gentler, it’s already vastly unjust to other people; small-footprint cultivation is more sustainable for humans. Reconfiguring us as with non-human its inside us; we are already many more things than humans, but we can understand that better.
Q @ dandelions, round-up in our bodies… JB: we are part round-up; conative drive to persevere in our assemblages — do we want to form an assemblage with round-up or with dandelions?
Q @ poetry, Joyce, politics… JB: likes in OOO the capaciousness of the category of the object. Wants now to try to thing about the type of thing that a text is: what kind of agency does that configuration of material bits have? Does reading “Leaves of Grass” change our radar of detection of specific things (e.g., grass as uncut hair of graves)? Poetry brings to the fore the sound quality of words.
Q @ role of inhuman: objects hail us, but in a domesticated world. Nature now lacks the capacity to terrify us. Is there value in rehabilitating the inhuman (i.e. as force of terrifying alterity)? Clarification: Miyazaki portraying death of the animal gods… JB: I don’t think any world is ever fully domesticated by humans. Nature (which is always an admixture) still has the capacity to terrify us; still great spectacles of human death around us.
Q-er 1 following up on how we’ve kept the sources of food, etc, out of sight. Another Q-er 2 on Japanese culture as not having this dichotomy: eg. “kire” (?) = beautiful + clean; Shinto as a path home. Q1: But what about the tsunami? Q2: Japan as first post-apocalyptic society, useful models for our behavior, and no presupposition of nature as something I am not; we are round-up, bacteria, etc.
Q @ fractured systematicity… JB wants to hang on to some version of a Spinozan substance, shared materiality that becomes messy and fractured.
Q [...] JB: The scientific vocabulary of cell biology provokes (for me) the Thoreauvian wild.
Q @ should we do different histories, e.g. history from the viewpoint of a mushroom? JB: multi-speeds and multi-times; e.g. “New York as a Geological Force” guidebook. Library trip for kids: think about not only books, but the making of the stone lions in front of it, & other actancies. The human time-span constrains our imagination of history. Thinking deeper time is politically salient.
Comment on “Friends of the Pleistocene”, Smudge studio.