Arts & DesignLetters

From OOO to P(OO)

I have been reading the work of Timothy Morton with pleasure for many years now. Originally a scholar of English romantic poetry, I find his work reads best as poetry, or perhaps a poetics, as a singular Mortonian vision of the world – or in this case, a vision of the absence of the world. For his most recent book is called Hyperorbjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota, 2013).

I have some problems with it as theory, however, and will try to outline here where my own thinking and Morton’s both overlap and diverge. Perhaps bodies of work are a case of what Morton calls hyperobjects: spooky, nonlocal, pervasive entities that are at once in us which we are in. In which case best way to proceed is simply to map one onto the other and find the edges where such things resonate.

One of the merits of Morton’s work is its attention to twenty-first century problems. Morton: “To those great Victorian period discoveries, then – evolution, capital, the unconscious – we must now add spacetime, ecological itnerconnection, and nonlocality.” (47) If one suspends disbelief and reads him texts as a science fiction poetics, one starts to breath the (overly warm, possibly radioactive) air of the times. Branching off from Alphonso Lingis, Morton offers a phenomenology for the strange and untimely objects one increasingly seems to encounter –hyperobjects.

But first, objects. Morton: “Objects are unique. Objects can’t be reduced to smaller objects or dissolved upwards into larger ones. Objects are withdrawn from one another and from themselves. Objects are Tardis-like, larger on the inside than they are on the outside. Objects are uncanny. Objects compose an untotalizable nonwhole set that defies holism and reductionism. There is thus no top object that gives all objects value and meaning, and no bottom object to which they can be reduced. If there is no top object and no bottom object, it means that we have a very strange situation in which there are more parts than there are wholes. This makes holism of any kind totally impossible.” (116)

In short, Morton declares victory in advance for the poets. The world is made of things that elude any other kind of knowing. This is even more the case with hyperobjects, which stick to being, which are viscous, nonlocal, temporally weird and detectable only through the waves they make coming in or out of phase with other, more banal kinds of objects.

Mortonian poetics is a species of the genre of object oriented ontology (ooo), which is itself a kind of poetic realism. One in which entities are shy and retiring, like an octopus squirting a jet of ink as it disappears. There’s no transcendental leap outside of this world of hyperobjects, and as such a ‘world’ can not be said to appear at all, if by world we mean that which can be said to exist over and against me.

There’s no more bracketing off of a separate world, as “we are no longer able to think history as exhaustively human…” (5) There’s no outside. We’re always inside hyperobjects and hyperobjects are always passing through us, whether the hyperobject is radioactive waste or global warming. This poetics brings us to an uncanny place – the end of the world.

Morton’s aim is to wake us from the dream of a world ending, to the realization that it has ended already. There’s no outside, no separation. “Because they so massively outscale us, hyperobjects have magnified this weirdness of things for our inspection…. What if hyperobjects finally force us to realize the truth of the word humiliation itself, which means being brought low, being brought down to earth itself?” (12, 17)

The book makes use of many examples from modern science, but I am resistant to the attempt to subsume such examples within ooo. Morton: “science doesn’t necessarily know what it is about.” (10) But surely the reverse is even more the case, as Morton almost acknowledges: “You have to wonder whether your poem about global warming is really a hyperobject’s way of distributing itself into human ears and libraries.” (175) One needs climate science to understand hyperobjects, as it is a key example, but not vice-versa. As always with ontology, ooo comes after the labor of producing a knowledge of affairs and adds a supernumerary interpretation to it.

As a species of the genus speculative realism, ooo wants to have an alternative to what Quentin Meillassoux calls (after Merleau-Ponty) correlationism, where for there to be knowledge of a thing there need be a corresponding subject. The ooo species approaches this by generalizing the Heideggerian theme of the withdrawal of the tool itself in the act of performing its tool-function, by positing that all objects withdraw from each other in this manner. The subject-object relation then becomes just a subset of all object-object relations, in which objects always withdraw from each other, and relate to each other aesthetically, through the face they present.

Morton uses an example from Husserl. Holding a coin, one sees its face. But you can’t see the other side of the coin as the other side. You can only flip it over and make it this side. But I think the thing to pay attention to is not the mystery of the other side or the limits of seeing just this side, but the labor of the flipping. Hence I would want to move on from the contemplative thought of ooo to what it cannot but acknowledge in passing but continually represses: the labor or praxis via which a thing is known.

But to say labor is not to say subject. It is not to return to correlationism. For labor is always a mix of the human and inhuman. To say ‘tool’ is to partly say, and then erase, labor. Particularly when one gets to modern means of knowing the world, the apparatus of labor and techne becomes a vast and inhuman thing. This is the case in a pertinent example such as climate science, as I discussed in Molecular Red. There it’s an array of satellites, computers, terrestrial weather stations, forms of international cooperation of scientific labor, elaborately agreed upon standards and so on. Climate science, like all modern science is an inhuman apparatus via which the nonhuman world is mediated in such a way that humans can comprehend it.

Contra Morton, I don’t think Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is not correlationist at all. Morton writes of “Bohr as thinking quantum events as if they were “correlations to (human) instruments.” (37) But why is the instrument ‘human’? Is not the instrument an inhuman thing that mediates the nonhuman to the human? Again, there’s a collapsing of the space in which praxis occurs here.

For Morton, we are always inside objects. We are neither at the center nor the edge, and if they are hyperobjects they maybe massive, pervasive and weird. But I don’t think it’s the object that withdraws; I think its ooo that occludes the ways in which objects are known in the first place, which is in three steps.

First, there’s the particular praxis that produces a knowledge. Whether the praxis is labor or science, its always a cyborg mix of human effort and inhuman apparatus.

Second, there’s the generalization of that praxis in the form of metaphors and images. This is also a kind of labor, an intellectual labor, a mix of human talk and inhuman apparatus of communication.

The third step is the erasure of the other two. First there’s the praxis of doing science about quantum mechanics or climate change. Second there’s the production of the metaphor of the hyperobject, and third the erasure of the dependence of this metaphor on that prior praxis. In this case, the metaphor will then be claimed to be what precedes all those other steps when it is actually a later derivation.

Objects and even hyperobjects then appear as objects of contemplation, circulating all around us, free from the labor that produced a knowledge of them as such. Here I think Morton’s version of a speculative realism has the same limitation as the work of Quentin Meillassoux, (about which I have written here and here.) Where Meillassoux produces the spectacle of the absolute, Morton produces instead a contemplative relation to the ambience of the long duration. This is progress, however. As Morton wisely notes, it is harder to imagine the long duration than to imagine eternity.

Meillassoux thinks the problem with phenomenology is the finitude of the human subject that correlates to the object of knowledge. Morton thinks it’s the privileged transcendental sphere. Morton: “Kant imagines that although we are limited in this way, our transcendental faculties are at least metaphorically floating in space beyond the edge of the universe, an argument to which Meillassoux himself cleaves in his assertion that reality is finally knowable exclusively by (human) subjectivity. And that is the problem, the problem called anthropocentrism.” (17) But what Morton offers instead is a contemplative access to the immanence of the strange and the weird. But we’re stuck with the problem ooo shares with speculative realism, and speculative realism shares with at least some other species of phenomenology: the erasure of praxis.

We’re left in some version of the eternal gap between the phenomena of the senses and their contemplation versus the essence of things that cannot be known. Interestingly, Morton chooses to concentrate on the contemplation of the gap between essence and appearance itself: “a thing just is a rift between what it is and how it appears.” (18) ‘Just is’, that is, once we have erased the inhuman praxis that produced it as an object of contemplation in the first place.

This is where Hyperobjects gets most interesting: as an aesthetics. By paying attention to the periphery of sensation, the ambient tone, the interference patterns, certain hyperobjects can be detected in everyday life (but only if we know in advance through other means that they are there.) “The ground of being is shaken. There we were, trolling along in the age of industry, capitalism and technology, and all of a sudden we received information from aliens, information that even the most hardheaded could not ignore, because the form in which the information was delivered was precisely the instrumental and mathematical formulas of modernity itself. The Titanic of modernity hits the iceberg of hyperobjects.” (19) Except that it doesn’t. This is like a Platonic myth. Information did not come “from aliens” but from the natural sciences. What modernity hit was (for example) information produced  by the praxis of the natural sciences about anthropogenic climate change.

There is already a name for the iceberg: the Anthropocene. What’s with the compulsion of humanities scholars to want to refuse this name we did not coin? Language is our job, of course. Its galling to have to admit that the relevant data here comes from without, from other ways of knowing, which bring with them other ways of naming, and other conventions about the rights of names. Somehow I just don’t think that insisting on the right to name things we did not discover is going to cut much ice.

One can indeed think the Anthropocene as a new historical age in which nonhumans are no longer excluded. Or one can do the reverse, which is perhaps more challenging, and is the point that earth sciences have arrived at: a new stage of geology in which humans are included. That to me is the truly strange thing to think.

However, there are elements in Morton useful for a twentieth century critique of separation. He does not inquire far as to where they come from, but he is hard on the case of modes of thought that assume a prior distinction, between the social and the natural, between self and world, between foreground and background. There are even forms of environmentalism that are caught up in this need for something separate, to be left alone. But this is no longer really possible. “Its oil we must thank for burning a hole in the notion of world.” (34) Its products are now everywhere, not least as that metonym for the Anthropocene, the hyperobject of global plastic residue. The geologists now even find strata of plastic rock being laid down as we speak.

Morton offers a brief glimpse of an aesthetic adequate to the viscous, pervasive nature of the oil-based world. It’s the rhapsodic, ambient, field-based art of a certain moment in modernism: Jackson Pollock, John Cage, William Burroughs. A contemporary extension might be Reza Negarastani’s astonishing Cyclonopedia, a book in which oil is the central character, a malign stain, a memory of sunlight, erupting from the bowels of the earth to change the course of history. Morton: “modernity is the story of how oil got into everything.” (54)

But what I think is to be resisted in Morton is the gesture that makes this poetics a higher truth than that of other practices of knowledge. Borrowing an image from The Matrix, Morton writes: “The mirror of science melts and sticks to our hand.” (36) He wants the viscous hyperobject to somehow be both before and beyond the realm of science, which as Karen Barad would have it, does require a kind of stabilizing of a closed space within an apparatus where observations can be made, repeated, recorded and then communicated.

It may be useful to have poetics (in the plural) that take the specific results of particular sciences and experimentally generalize them. This is what Bogdanov called tektology. But I think we start to get into trouble when we assume that poetics is a higher power. Morton is far less attentive to its limits than to the limits of scientific modes of knowing. So yes, let’s attend to Jackson Pollock, but maybe attend also to how the promotion of his work in postwar America is tied to the suppression of an art that directly addressed the class struggle or racial oppression, or how it partook in the cult of the male genius which is the very opposite of any approach to creation as the product of a field or an emergence from an ambience.

A good example of both the uses and the limits of a poetic and metaphoric extension of specific results from particular sciences is Morton’s use of the nonlocal as a metaphor. Here he has in mind things like nuclear radiation and endocrine disruptors, things that are waste products of modernity but which can’t be kept separate, which get into everything. Atmospheric carbon might be another example. They are examples of what I would call, following John Bellamy Foster, metabolic rift.

It was Marx who opened this metaphoric extension, thinking outwards from the metabolism of separate organism towards the thought that the whole planet is one metabolism. Marx was already starting to think the breakdown of such processes. In his time, it was flows of phosphorous and nitrogen. Now one could extend that thought to atmospheric carbon, complex hydrocarbon compounds, or radioactive isotopes produced by nuclear reactions. Thought of as metabolic rift, or as Jason Moore calls it metabolic drift, one can stay close to the science of geochemistry and need not add too many additional concepts.

It is indeed the case that one has to think causality in a contemporary way to understand such things: association, correlation and probability are all we have to go on. These days, empirical observations only make sense within computer simulated models of earth system processes. This is only weird or strange from the point of view of 19th century models of science. As contemporary science, the aesthetics of this are now quite ordinary, and need to be thought now as such.

One kind of science that really does still seem spooky and weird is quantum mechanics. But again, this is only so if one tries to sustain some sort of 19th century realism, from the point of view of which quantum mechanics seems to point to a troubling and contradictory reality. Niels Bohr really did have a solution to this, but its one that meets strong resistance from those who really need to maintain a faith in a reality that is out there, and separate. One way to read Bohr is as offering a realism not of the object of knowledge but of its practice, but where its practice takes place within the inhuman space of the apparatus.

This is Bohr’s complementarity: an apparatus gets a result; another apparatus gets another result. The results are a product of the apparatus. What is separate is the artificial space and time of the apparatus. One is to resist the temptation to say too much about what the results from within the apparatus might say about what we imagine to be the real and separate world beyond what the praxis of the experiment might say about itself.

But rather than affirm that the apparatus produces the phenomena, something that has the status of a fact, Morton proceeds the opposite way. Rather than stick with the limited recording of an object that an apparatus can produce, he wants to say that the real objects withdraw. Fine, but this is to speak of something that in its very nature is beyond observation, beyond any knowledge, but can only be an effect of a poetic art or speculative discourse.

It is a poetics which runs many risks of simply generalizing habits of mind or extrusions of current social relations onto the cosmic scale. It can lead to statements that are just not true: “OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate, and testable theory of physical reality available. Actually it would be better to say it the other way around: quantum theory works because it’s object-oriented.” In the space of two sentences, an alleged congruence becomes by fiat a foundation.

From thence we end up doing everything Ernst Mach warned us not to do: subordinating the genuine oddness of the praxis of science and the particular results it gets to a worldview which presumes to speak to a higher reality. Thus Morton: “Unlike the Copenhagen Interpretation, the ontological interpretation is noncorrelationist: particles withdraw from one another, not because humans are observing them in certain ways, but because the implicate order is withdrawn from itself.” (43) This is an imaginative solution to an imaginary problem. Bohr’s approach is not correlationist. To say so excludes the inhuman nature of the apparatus. It might be appealing to imagine objects withdraw, but poetry is not the unacknowledged legislator for the sciences.

Sometimes the praxis of science will simply blow a hole through our speculative worldviews. Thus I agree with Morton that once one has even a poor layperson’s grasp of something like quantum nonlocality, it is hard to call oneself a materialist, or even a ‘new’ materialist any more. In the Marxist tradition there were three responses to this.

One was to sever any connection between what materialism might mean as a scientific worldview and what it might mean when applied to social and historical formations. A second was to formulate a ‘dialectical materialism’ that could keep abreast of the sciences. A third was to shift from statements about the materialism of the world to a critique of the materialism of the production of knowledge about the world.

The first path was that of western Marxism and of much critical theory today. I think Morton and I might agree that (call it what you like) the hyperobject, the Anthropocene or metabolic rift renders it obsolete. There is no separate world of the social. The second path was that of Engels, reinvented in a way by new materialism in a Deleuzian vein, and by ooo in a Heideggerian one. Rather than separate itself from the sciences, it claims to be about something prior to them. I put Morton in this camp.

The third that of the ‘Machists’ such as Bogdanov, reinvented in a different register by Donna Haraway and Karen Barad. The merit of this third path is that it keeps critical thought in touch with the sciences, like the first path, but limits its ambitions. It respects the methods of the sciences and does not claim access to a superior reality. It looks critically at how ideas from the social world end up in the sciences, but also works creatively on how the sciences can produce figures that might be metaphorically extended to other domains. But it does not claim its second-order generation of such metaphors is a first order knowledge of something more fundamental than what scientific knowledge might know.

There is certainly a benefit to the poetics Morton opens up. From the point if view of the hyperobject, “Locality is an abstraction.” (47) Here is a useful reversal of perspective: “… in an age in which hyperobjects start to oppress us with their terrifying strangeness – we will have to acclimatize ourselves to the fact that locality was always a false immediacy.” (48) One can put this alongside the rather different critique of the folk politics of the Invisible Committee in Srnieck and Williams.

But I simply cannot accept statements such as: “The object is already there. Before we look at it. Global warming is not a function of our measuring devices.” (49) What’s missing here is the proper sequence via which knowledge is produced. A theory of global warming is confirmed, by computer modeling based (in part) on measuring devices, which then retrospectively comes to describe a state prior to the result of this praxis.

The particular pleasure to be had here is poetic: “Like God taking a photograph, the nonhuman sees us…” (50) And “We are poems about the hyperobject Earth.” (51) Indeed all life-forms become poems about nonlife, songs to the geo-trauma of being. Well and good. Until this: “Is the beyond of that might explain the poem more real than the here of the poem? There is no way to tell.” (53) There are ways to tell, and they are partial and fallible. They are the various kinds of praxis of knowledge and labor, here as always rendered invisible to the contemplative soul. What is withdrawn in ooo is always labor. In the absence of which magical thinking returns.

Hyperobjects exhibit difficult spatial properties, being both molecular and global in scale at once. They are also temporally difficult. They need to be thought on very long timescales. In a brilliant insight – and a point against Meillassoux – Morton notes that “These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to the Earth we are. Infinity is far easier to cope with.” (60)

In a lovely metaphor, Morton has it that after relativity theory, “time and space emerge from things, like the rippling flesh of a sea urchin or octopus.” (63) But here again, the significance of experimental proof is only fleetingly acknowledged. “Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers than entities sit on.” (65) No, physics does, once as theory, and then as theory confirmed by quite particular experimental apparatus.

Hyperobjects are not only spatially and temporally weird, for Morton they even exist in a higher dimension. They manifest through phasing, or interference patterns, when they encounter more mundane objects. This whole argument rests on an analogy: “If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world, first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing.” (70) Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, “A high enough dimensional being could see global warming itself as a static object. What horrifyingly complex tentacles would such an entity have, this high-dimensional object we call global warming?” (71)

For Morton, the mathematical description is not what underlies the object, it is a paraphrase. Not being a Platonist on such questions, I can quite agree. However, I can’t agree with Morton’s attempt to make a poetics of the object an intimation of a higher reality. The so-called flat ontology of ooo needs to be countered with a flat epistemology, one which does not a priori assign a hierarchy to ways of knowing, but rather holds open the question of which forms of knowledge have priority in which domain, and more importantly, what their modes of relation should be. Like Bogdanov, I think the goal is not to assert a hierarchy of one form of knowledge over others, be it the sciences or philosophy or poetry. The goal might rather be a comradely cooperation of modes of knowing as a subset of ways of laboring.

Thus I admire the literary quality of this metaphoric leap: “hyperobjects are disturbing clowns in an Expressionist painting, clowns who cover every available surface of the painting, leering into our world relentlessly.” (76) But I can assign no a priori truth value to this way of claiming a knowledge of the world. Unlike Morton, I want a consistently indexical or metonymic approach to what a form of knowledge praxis does. A known thing is an index of unknown things. But one must always keep in view the means by which the indexical sign is made out of the world. And one should try to assume the bare minimum about that world beyond what the index traces.

Or, one could speculatively imagine a lot of objects, even ‘withdrawn’ ones but assign them no reality besides being possibilities in the mesh of language. And so one can say: “The abyss is not an empty container, but rather a surging crowd of beings…” (80) Or, contra Morton, one can write as Meillassoux does of a universe after the style of Mallarmé that could collapse at any time and exists as and for no reason at all. To think that being reveals itself in such language, even in a veiled or withdrawn state, is really just the via negativa of logos.

To see it as something more Morton has recourse once again to an analogy. What if hyperobjects were to mind as base was to superstructure? “My thinking is thus a mental translation of the hyperobject – of climate, biosphere, evolution – not just figuratively, but literally.” Once again, notice that what is withdrawn from view here is praxis. The mind pulls the pattern of the world by reflecting on itself as itself.

What makes it a more appealingly contemporary aesthetic is its indirectness. Like deconstruction, “for every system of meaning, there must be some opacity for which the system cannot account.” (89) But it may be over-reaching to think that one can speak in the place of that opacity in domains other that writing, of the “magic of real objects that subtend the object system.” (89) It can produce an attractive metaphysics: “Appearance is the past, essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility – it’s the future, somehow beamed into the ‘present.’” But metaphysics is here meta in the sense of supernumerary.

Hyperobjects offer an ecologywithout matter, without the present, dwelling, one assumes, in the futurity of essence. “The present is precisely nowhere to be found in the yawning Rift opening between the future and past, essence and appearance… The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects… Time is a flurry of spells and counter-spells cast by objects themselves… The unknown soul of things, the essence, remains on the hither side…” (92-94) Here we have a, rather than definitely the, way of thinking outside some kind of self/other or object/subject binary, even if that problematic dualism has been re-inscribed on another axis.

There’s no environment as something separate, out there. “The idea that we are embedded in a phenomenological lifeworld, tucked up like little hobbits into the safety of our burrow, has been exposed as a fiction.” (104) Rather, there’s an all too intimate relation with hyperobjects, which far exceed us yet pass through us, like radiation or dioxins. I agree with Morton that responding to all this with the rhetoric of sustainability (or even resilience) is insufficient. But unlike him I think this may mean more, rather than less attention to molecular flows, be they of oil or oil-based polymers. Earth systems sciences are never going to give us complete answers – like any verifiable knowledge they depend on the separations performed by particular apparatus – but more rather than less attention to such disciplines seems tactically the thing on which to insist right now.

Morton thinks we have to abandon the category of nature, which he takes to mean something like environment, a background, a thing apart. Hence his famous slogan ecology without nature. I appreciate the rhetorical gambit here, but I don’t know if in the long run this is a good tactic. One would have thought that ecology was an even more troubling term: oikos plus logos, as if there could be a logic or truth to metabolism within which the satisfaction of human social needs is achieved. I actually take the theory of the hyperobject to mean: there is no ecology. There is no homeostatic cycle of life that could be restored through the withdrawal of human interference.

Nature is a rather more tricky term. To shorthand Raymond Williams, its root meaning is connected to birth (natality). It has meant at least three different things. Firstly, the quality of a thing. Secondly, the force that directs the world. Thirdly, the material world itself. The human can be included or not in any of its definitions. It may not actually be possible to think ecology without nature, as ecology is just a point in the space of possible meanings of nature itself. As he himself says: “Home, oikos, is unstable.” (117) But the hyperobject is still a theory of nature, one among the set of possible deployments of the term that refuses to see the human point of view as one that could claim a fundamental separation or externality of point of view on it.

It seems that Morton’s resistance to the word nature has to do with Wordsworth’s colonization of it. He prefers Keats’ attention to the object. But perhaps this was just a way to write nature poetry differently rather than a break with it. And maybe it’s a path that comes with its own problems. “In ooo-ese, reification is precisely the reduction of a real object to its sensual appearance-for another object. Reification is the reduction of one entity to another’s fantasy about it. Nature is a reification in that sense.” (119) But ooo responds to this with reification in negative. The futural, essential, withdrawn object becomes the fetish, at the expense not only of any particular sensory one, but of the collaborative praxis needed to work these partial, mediated apprehensions that are the real into some workable relation to each other.

The insistence on a strange, spooky or weird kind of aesthetics is itself a product of this fetish in negative, which suppresses attention to praxis and contemplates a floating phantasmagoria of things. “Two hundred years of seeing humans at the center of existence, and now the objects take revenge, terrifyingly huge, ancient, long-lived, threateningly minute, invading every cell in our body.” (115)

Well, yes, if one had not paid attention to the praxis via which the inhuman world of of labor plus apparatus transforms nature into second nature (perhaps even a third nature), including all the things thus made that escape exchange calculus of exchange value. These things appear then as akin to that most rarified of fetish objects, art. “We are the curators of a gigantic museum of non-art in which we have found ourselves, a spontaneous museum of hyperobjects.” (121)

As in Shelley, there’s a wager on the ethical and political import of poetic vision: “This destiny comes from beyond the (human) world, and pronounces or decrees the end of the world. This decree marks a decisive point in Earth history in which humans discern the nonhuman and thus reckon the fate of Earth with greater justice.” (148) One is reminded here of Shelley attaching his incendiary poems to a hot air balloon as a way to try and close the gap between the poem and its public, and between a public and action. Everything is reduced to the rather idealistic project of countering a truncated view of the world with a vision: “This attitude is directly responsible for the ecological emergency, not the corporation or the individual per se, but the attitude that inheres both in the corporation or the individual, and in the critique of the corporation and the individual.” (155)

What gives ooo its old-fashioned flavor is its attempt to give new life to an old metaphysical strategy. As Morton notes, we are confronted with limited options within the old possibility space, of which he lists three. Firstly, essence is everywhere. Secondly, there is no essence. Thirdly essence is right here, yet it is withdrawn.

Here I place myself with Bogdanov in the second camp, which declares an end to philosophy’s attempt to claim a special object that is prior to and has more being that the objects produced within other forms of knowledge which are based on appearances. Maybe we don’t have to posit weird beings to understand evolution, ecology, quantum mechanics or climate change. Maybe we just have to accept these things as ordinary.

Morton has rather given us a variation on the hidden God (a variation on option one, essence is everywhere). Lucien Goldman’s Hidden God is a study of Blaise Pascal and his contemporaries, and perhaps an instructive one for our times. Pascal had a tragic vision of life. He accepts a world in which to act but its values cannot satisfy him. He is both in and out of the social. Its justice is not true justice, but he does not leave it as the mystics do. He maintains a faith in a superior realm, but this is not the ever-present God of the middle ages. God does not manifest directly in his creation.

For Goldman, this is the worldview of an administrative class whose power is waning. They are within a powerful institution but not governing it. Hence: “The feeling is rather of the nonhuman out of control, withdrawn from total human access.” (172) Rather like today’s humanities scholars. Hence the will to power over the world through the staking of a claim to a higher reality, but a hidden one: in Pascal’s case, God; in Morton’s case, objects. The latter builds on the formalization of the former which for Goldman was Kant’s achievement. He made philosophy the legislator of what counted as a legitimate object of thought, of what belongs to appearances and what to essences. Morton banks instead on being able to speak in and about the rift between, the weird zone just beyond appearances from which to claim that they issue.

Perhaps this does have a value, in creating an illusion within which traditional forms of humanistic knowledge can continue to go on. And perhaps illusions have their uses when the dangers of losing them are too great. “Art in these conditions is grief-work. We are losing a fantasy – the fantasy of being immersed in a neutral or benevolent Mother Nature and a person who is losing a fantasy is a very dangerous person.” (196) Morton’s contributions to reviving old modes of affect and percept under new and pressing circumstances is certainly an important project.

For myself, I’m closer to the way Donna Haraway goes about this, which likewise tries to ‘stay with the trouble’ of our times, but stays also in the world of appearances. There’s no additional claims for poetics as a way of knowing besides its ability to communicate between domains, and in particular to get actual knowledge about the nonhuman working within the spaces of humanistic and social thought.

In that vein I can agree with this version of Morton’s project: “Nonhuman beings strike a devastating blow against teleology, a blow detected by Darwin and celebrated by Marx, who wrote Darwin a fan letter for his opposition to teleology. The end of teleology is the end of the world.” (95) But these nonhuman beings can be thought strictly in the world of appearances, the world of the praxis of knowledge with its cyborg apparatus of human labor and inhuman techne.

I would call this way of working not object oriented ontology, but praxis (object oriented), or p(oo) for short.* I would paraphrase Haraway’s ‘staying with the trouble’ as staying with the poo, meaning both staying with the praxis, but also meaning – staying with the poo. Stay with the waste, the neglect, the bad byproduct. Here I retain the metaphoric use of object-oriented, which as Manovich, Chen and Galloway have pointed out, is a particular moment in the history of computation. There objects don’t withdraw, they are intentionally hidden from a programmer so that she or he works only on the object with which they are tasked and don’t fuck up the work others. It’s a way of staying out of each other’s way that I think Morton oversteps vis-à-vis the sciences or other empirical knowledge praxis.

And at the end of the day, what matters most in the Anthropocene is that each distinctive mode of thought and feeling find its own language and form of effectivity within its horizon. One could think it (or not) as Morton does, as a charnal ground, “an undead place of zombies, viroids, junk DNA, ghosts, silicates, cyanide, radiation, demonic forces, and pollution…. When the charm of world is dispelled, we find ourselves in the emergency room of ecological coexistence.” (126) The important thing, which Morton fully grasps, is to think it.

 

* I used the title ‘From OOO to P(OO)” for a presentation to the Object Oriented Ontology Conference at The New School in 2011, which unfortunately is no longer available online.

 

McKenzie Wark

  • Conor

    Going to go ahead and clarify the human subject thing with Bohr. He thought humans (literally) were required to make quantum indeterminate states stabilise. Literally. Barad is really sad about it.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, that’s why i said “one way of reading” this, as i was following Barad’s reading of Bohr, which for me points to the role of apparatus as something that complicates the human as that which makes a quantum state readable.

  • Robin Parmar

    Hyperobjects partake of no scale we can comprehend, are multifaceted and boundless, and withdraw from our observations in any case. They are beyond knowing. If this is true, it is true of every object in the world. For even the infinitesimal atom occupies (almost) uncountable numbers of granular time-strokes, and cannot be pinned down (the Uncertainty Principle and all that). Thus, everything is a hyperobject; we don’t need the term at all. We can instead get used (finally) to not being in the nineteenth century of ideas. That world of the definitive ended a long time ago. It didn’t die, just fizzled, out-gassed by its own elisions. Poets might well wish to aestheticise this new field of being (heck, I sure do), but there is something far too triumphant in Morton’s over-reaching metaphors. We are geological; we are vast; we are radioactive. Yes. We are constrained by the tectonic and climatic. Yes. But we are also emplaced by the cultural and political; structures we create as they create us. Morton forsakes praxis for transcendental inventions. This is as dangerous now as it ever has been.

    “Maybe we don’t have to posit weird beings to understand evolution, ecology, quantum mechanics or climate change. Maybe we just have to accept these things as ordinary.” Exactly so. Thank-you for your excellent article.

    • mckenziewark

      I appreciate the poetics of the hyper object. That part of Morton’s work i find valuable. But a poetics is not an ontology. There i think its part of a regressive move to find a new way to reclaim the old authority of philosophy.

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    How does one need climate science to understand hyperobjets, when no climate scientist came up with the idea? You’re right insofar as science is a necessary ingredient of understanding things (LOTS of things, not just hyperobjects), but your sentence to me reads like: you need an eating utensil to taste food. That’s BS. I just had this conversation with my Dad-in-law, who also thinks there’s some preformatted line between “really doing things” and “just talking about them” that everyone and everything just automatically knows where to place without having to be told by drill sergeants, and that one is better or more real than the other. I’m really bored with such nonsense, but I’ll give you some time, because you might benefit from what I say to all scientistics (those with the ideology that scientific knowledge is more true or real than philosophical understanding). If you want to be a scientist, be a scientist: it’s very useful. I tried it for a while, and entomology and botany are kinda fun and I did well, but I really wanted to know what things were. Science doesn’t do that, and really smart scientists know they don’t do that. You need science to take things apart and know what they’re made of, you need science to mash them into relations with other things to see what they do. But now, take my previous sentence and replace the word “things” with “people”. Does science help you know WHAT people are? No. It helps you know DATA ABOUT THEM. Taking people apart or mashing them into relations is not a good idea. Same with animals, soil, books and works of art. NASA computers gave us data about something we couldn’t think clearly about from just the data. It took a literary thinker to conceptualize the hyperobject. Want to know how big a thing is or how much potassium it’s got? You can’t do better than to ask a scientist. Want to know what “big” is? Want to know why we should care about potassium? In that case, you’re talking philosophy. And scientists and philosophers are always doing both: they’re different hats, but people wear them both all the time. Anyone who says “I’m not doing philosophy; I’m doing REAL stuff” just uttered the worst and most rhetorically convoluted philosophical gubbins the 20th century had to offer. Move on into the 21st please.

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    Can you please show me a) what is the given difference between theory and praxis (again, the GIVEN one, not the one you have to have explained to you by someone who had it explained by…), b) why I should be interested in this difference, and c) how is thinking this difference even practical? Praxis doesn’t provide knowledge of anything by itself: I “prax” martial art; doesn’t mean I “know” it…or if you’re going to say it does, then what on earth does that mean you think “knowing” is?

    • mckenziewark

      This is a common prejudice among the theoretically inclined.

      • Nick Perry-Guetti

        Except that my entire mode up until about four years ago was utterly non-theoretical, or so I imagined. So, no, it’s not a prejudice to the extent of the ones your article is founded on. In the first place, it’s a question, not a prejudice, and you didn’t answer it because it’s not answerable. Secondly, I did practice science and ecodesign for upwards of ten years (and as I said, still do practice martial art, but can’t “know” it any better than you can without even knowing which art I practice). Thirdly, there you go again with the “the”. As in, “the theoretically inclined”, as if you’re not theorizing. Want to know who the theoretically inclined are? Look in the mirror.

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    “all modern science is an inhuman apparatus”. Gobbledygook. Modern science is a human prosthesis. You can’t locate lines between “the” human and “the” nonhuman that are empirically verifiable.

    • mckenziewark

      Your this sentence makes my point, and contradicts your second.

      • Nick Perry-Guetti

        Very clever sounding, except you offer no evidence of this. Try me, I’m game! Imagine you’re from Mars, and you’re a blob. An asexually reproducing blob with eyes. Eyes and a nervous system, and the ability to come to Earth and check humans out, but no familiarity with them. OK Mr. Blob, how do you know the difference between me and my toothbrush, when you leave pieces of yourself around to become not-you any time you reproduce, and all your tools are just blobby extrusions? Answer: you can’t. Not even after extensive study will the nature of the distinction be obvious to you, and certainly not on arrival. You just haven’t gotten used to the idea of yourself as a weird alien thing yet.

        • mckenziewark

          There’s a whole literature on this that goes way back before ooo of which you seem not to know. Hence your remarks miss their mark and merely gesture toward straw men arguments nobody is making.

          • Matthew Landis

            Beyond a bias against the sciences, there’s a bias against “analytical” philosophy in theory these days. A lot of it justified. But Quine & Lakatos have always seemed useful to me…

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    “First, there’s the particular praxis”, etc. This sequential pattern is a fantasy. These things are all happening at the same time constantly, not going one after the other, and I think your statement that “the metaphor will then be claimed to be what precedes all those other steps” is about as straw a man as you can get. I’m not aware that Morton or OOO is making that claim. I do know of plenty scientistic arguments that say the reverse, as you have: that the “doing” precedes the “thinking”, or indeed that either precedes the other in some linear way at all. I remain unconvinced that this is anything other than busy-work list-making, or that your listed items have anything directly to do with the things your list refers to. The list is, itself, a metaphor, and the items on it are also metonymic conceptualizations. There’s nothing wrong with that; but call it what it is, don’t pretend you can do things with it that you can’t.

    • mckenziewark

      Where hyper object is concerned, its just a statement of fact. The theory of the hyper object does not precede quantum mechanics or climate science.

      • Nick Perry-Guetti

        Yeah, it’s “just” a statement of fact. Like I “just” am Nick Perry-Guetti without anyone having to say that. In other words: not.

        • Bragí McDougall

          This is a false homology.

  • Nick Perry-Guetti

    Ok, I’ll stop now. There’s no interest in the article for me after that point anyway: Morton isn’t saying what you say he is, period. You have to do more playing with your basic assumptions before tackling this stuff. Since you are obviously well-possessed of the virtue of patience (you clearly have read the material a LOT more thoroughly than most of its critics so far), I recommend Tim’s poetry class (“How to read any Poem”), especially because it is itself a metaphorical model for how to use a formula (albeit a literary rather than scientific one) to get a better sense of things that are in themselves not necessarily reducible to a formula. See? Literary analysis is praxis too! Get used to it: people are going to start doing it everywhere, because it’s actually fun, unpredictable and interesting (as opposed to boring, depressing and methodical), and the fun stuff might possibly be why we bother doing the methodical stuff in the first place. “How” to do this or that in the Anthropocene is what everybody seems to be asking, and I’m just exhausted with this. I want to talk about a “how” too, but a “how” that includes an equal and inseparable mixture of “why”.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, literary study is indeed a praxis, but then one that needs to be studied as such, which ooo does not do, and indeed lacks any ‘tool’ to do. In my review i have actually looked at it as a praxis, and that reveals its aporia on this topic.

      • Nick Perry-Guetti

        Yeah, but you frame it as a certain kind of praxis that doesn’t really “do” anything, meaning theory. Not that I think theory means that. Regardless, you still draw a prejudiced distinction between two things that, for the purpose of interest and the development of synthetic projects, are not two things. This is a false and utterly unexamined premise, but not unexamined by OOO. In closing all I can say is that if you’re not familiar with the vast extent to which OOO has analyzed itself as a praxis in the last decade or so, it can be no one’s fault but your own. And sorry, but an analysis based on the premises you revealed at the beginning of your review isn’t interesting enough to read through. It’s the same matter/non-matter type of dead-end we’ve been stuck in for as long as anyone can remember, and like Neil Young said, everyone knows this is nowhere. OOO is a beautiful, spooky and amazing road with no end in sight, because any road “out” also triggers a journey “in”. If you want to stay there, that’s fine, just don’t imagine it’s you that’s going anywhere any more than me.

        • mckenziewark

          Looks like your enthusiasm is clouding your judgement here. There’s no matter/non-matter dichotomy in my text at all. You are simply imputing things to it so as not to deal with it.

  • Cameron Keys

    I gather that for Bogdanov and for Wark there is some major task at hand of inventing ways of presenting disparate profusions of knowledge to ourselves in accurate, “comprehensive” ways, but also designing VENUES where this collaborative digestion and metabolism of knowledges promotes problem-solving social arrangements capable of integrating these technical negotiations into absolutely everything else that matters….

    • Cameron Keys

      And furthermore, I gather that there is not even a working organizational exemplar for such a venue today, let alone a sufficient network of such venues to meliorate the tangled thicket of fucked up conditions we face. What we have currently are people inventing tools of data aggregation and visualization, some political organizing, a little peer-to-peer over here and sone international politics over there, lots and lots of good promising things happening beyond my awareness for sure, and some good sci-fi dream work, and growing awareness of the scope of the broader task among many kinds of knowledge makers and consumers, but we ain’t even close to getting a handle on any of this. We ain’t even close!

      • mckenziewark

        Yes, those are some of organizational problems confronting the politics of knowledge today.

  • dmf
    • mckenziewark

      Will have to read that more thoroughly. But just in passing: Anthropocene dates back to the 80s. As such it does not come after OOO at all.

      • Bragí McDougalli

        Absolutely. Of course, there might be value to ditching Crtuzen’s formulation altogether. There’s plenty of literature on it, but our ability to make the Anthropocene consistent with the symbolic suggests that the structure might already have already witnessed its end.

  • Chris Heppell

    Great essay McKenzie, thank you. But when you speculate that “perhaps this was just a way to write nature poetry differently rather than a break with it”, I think Morton is acutely aware of this, and would agree with you. The “without” in EwN is not about making a modernist break. Morton suggests that it should be thought in relation to Derrida’s deconstructive thinking of the “sans”. In other words, ecology is never purged of the concept of Nature. The “without” has content as a ramification in the mesh (or later, hyperobject). What I feel your account misses is the affective tonality of something like the irony of co-belonging. EwN is a thesis about ecological aesthetic theory that deconstructs itself: Morton knows it’s untenable as theory, but at the same time he feels it necessary to respond to a disaster that has already happened. The “without Nature” is the withdrawal of Nature (i.e. it’s still conceptually present even though it can’t be mimetically affirmed as a sense-giving Mother). Praxis comes from subjecting Morton’s thesis to the poetics of real objects that are always excessive in relation to attempts to conceptualise/do justice to environmental catastrophe. I agree with all of your concerns about Morton’s work and I’m particularly thankful for the way you conduct an etymological interrogation of ecology. I only think that Morton anticipates a lot more of these concerns than you give him credit for, particularly in EwN (where there is far more of a flavour of cultural critique, and a section on praxis, for example). I agree though that this reflexivity falls by the wayside in his more recent work.

    • mckenziewark

      Ecology without Nature was perhaps pointing in some other directions, before being subsumed into OOO.

Previous post

Two Cheers for Prayer Shaming

Next post

D.I.Y. Terrorism, and ISIS and Osama Bin Laden on the Gray Zone