Thoughts on OOO

In the vein of posting my notes as I work on a longer project, here are some thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology.  I am not going to be writing the section that discusses this issue for several months yet, so this is mostly meant as a reminder to myself.

Over the holidays, a friend asked me what I thought of OOO, and sent me a link to a YouTube video in which Graham Harman has a conversation with Slavoj Zizek (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdGeJWJsxto: there are several very inarticulate and dull introductions before the discussion begins, about 17 minutes in). Harman was impressively patient with Zizek’s uncontrollable rudeness, monopolizing the time and constantly interrupting.  Still, what he said when he did get a chance to speak seemed consonant with what I had read of OOO.  In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that he was writing a new book as an introduction to his philosophical position.  It is modestly subtitled “A New Theory of Everything.”  I read it, then reread some sections, and thought I should write up some notes to remind me late exactly what I found so troubling about this “theory.” I posted it to Amazon as a review—I’ll copy it here.

A well-written and useful book. For those of us who’ve been hearing about OOO for a few years now, and couldn’t quite get what it was all about, this book should clear things up.
On the positive side, it is great to see that there is some movement attempting to resume metaphysics, and get out of the dismal swamp of reductivism and extreme relativism. When we forget that “objects” really do have essences and structures that are more than just their enabling conditions, we forfeit any real hope of agency.
However, I’m not convinced at all that OOO is really going to overcome the reductivist-relativist problem.
For one thing, it is quite clearly just another form of Romanticism, recycling the same approach with new terminology and pretending to ground-breaking novelty. I mean, it’s not just the laments about the barren meaninglessness of reductive science, and not just the idea that all knowledge of reality is ultimately sublime aesthetics. Although this is enough to see this is nothing new, right? Of course, Harman seems blissfully unaware of the history of aesthetics, and so believes that his idea that the aesthetic experience is the presentation of the unpresentability of the thing-in-itself is a radically new idea. It’s just the Romantic sublime. And we’ve known for decades (centuries?) that such aesthetic experiences are really just the mistaking of culturally-produced meanings for the object’s own deep essence. Such “sublime” effects are the misrecognition of ideology for deep ontology…and sure, they give us a “thrill” and all, but they don’t help us out of the trap of empiricism.
What’s even more strikingly Romantic is the section on “Society and Politics,” which is mostly made up of a discussion of the American Civil War. The war is discussed as an “object,” in the OOO sense. But what we can talk about, in OOO, is generals and battles and the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation. What is ruled out is discussion of the effects of economic practices or of the struggles and practices of masses of oppressed people. I can see, I suppose, why OOO might function as a useful heuristic, calling attention to feature of a thing we might otherwise miss. But it also seems designed to discourage attention to things Harman would rather not think about—like oppression, poverty, human struggles, and most of all capitalism.
The one thing that gets him irate is the suggestion that we humans might be able to work to make the world a better place. As he says in a YouTube video made just when he was finishing this book, he has no patience for “whining about capitalism”; after all, it is, he says, the same old complaint for hundreds of years now—with no imagination at all. Hmm, why would this be?
He does rely on some clever sophistry…in fact, relies on it a bit too much. As when he says that any suggestion that human thought is a different kind of thing than a non-human object is tantamount to dividing ontology in half, and insisting that human thought makes up half of all existing reality. Well, no, it isn’t. One thing can be different from all others without therefore counting as half of all things.
And many of his claims are just assertions of the form “OOO says that,” with no real convincing argument why we should believe what this personified entity tells us. Not all claims are mere assertions—he makes arguments for some of them. But why, for example, should we accept that an “object” can have only five or six “symbiotic” objects that constitute it? How do they arrive at that number? And why should we believe that humans can have no effect on politics, only objects like catastrophes or technology can (he insists on this, but doesn’t make a case for it).
The goal seems to be to insist, like Romanticism (see, for instance, Schopenhauer) that we shouldn’t bother to act in the world, and all we can do is have profound sublime aesthetic experiences. Haven’t we heard the call to aestheticize politics enough in the last two centuries?
I would suppose that any thinking person reading this book will be spared the time trying to engage with other OOO texts. So as an introduction, it seems to me exemplary.

I thought I’d expand here on a couple of points concerning aesthetics.

First, the necessity of objects. Good old-fashioned Aristotelian metaphysics would suggest that it is essential to recognize that there are objects that have a tendency to go on being what they are, even in resistance to the causes and conditions that gave rise to them.  This is an essential point that Postmodern discourses try hard to avoid recognizing.  If everything is just part of one enormous net of causation, then in fact there is no way to account for the existence of anything at all—and certainly no way to account for agency.  However, objects have causal powers, emergent powers, exactly because they are no longer so easily influenced by external conditions.  We can imagine the difference between a molecule of H2O in a body of water, and an ice cube, as a rough analogy.  The molecule is completely part of the fluid flow, affected by the surrounding air currents or any objects the water encounters, but the ice acquires its own momentum and exerts an influence on the currents.  Not a perfect analogy, but good enough for now.

There is a tendency toward extreme relationalism or contextualism in most conservative philosophical positions, attempting to maintain a passive resignation to the status quo.  I’m reminded of the debate in American philosophical aesthetics in the 1930s, between John Dewey and Stephen Pepper.  Pepper advocated strong contextualism, and took the position that the focus in aesthetics must be on the adequate conditions of reception—in short, the task was to train all students to truly love Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, etc. (these are his examples). Dewey suggested that a work of art might become an object, having properties beyond the situation of reception and so exerting an influence—that is, works of art might effect a change in the structure of our construal of the world.  Clearly, Stephen Pepper, a Harvard grad who went on to serve as the chair of philosophy at Berkeley, was a staunch conservative—the contextualism (Pepper’s term for it) which we might today call postmodern relativism was, for him, obviously a conservative position.

I would say that it is so today. That the extreme form of constructivism/relativism that attempts (it never does succeed) to deny the existence of any enduring objects with emergent powers and agency is always the most extremely conservative stance. Nobody is a better global capitalist than a Rorty fan, right?

So I was puzzled by Harman’s focus on aesthetics. Why would someone so obviously archly-conservative, economically and politically, as the OOO folks are, advocate the possibility of there being actual aesthetic objects in the strong sense of object?  Wouldn’t it leave open the possibility that there might some reason for and possibility of challenging capitalism?  Perhaps, I thought, the contextualist-metaphysical split isn’t so neatly a conservative-progressive split after all?

It turns out, though, that Harman doesn’t really accept the existence of aesthetic objects after all. He simply asserts that aesthetics must be redefined to mean the use of metaphors, and focuses on one example: “the cypress is like the ghost of a dead flame.”  He hardly mentions anything we would typically consider aesthetic objects (a few are mentioned in passing), and never recognizes the original meaning of the term itself: the study of the relationship between physical experiences and ideas, or between the concrete particularity of a sensation and the abstract generalization of a concept.  And metaphor, after all, is a necessary feature of all language—so what he is doing here is effectively not producing a theory of aesthetics, but a theory of language.

In this theory of language, there are not objects at all.  Harman makes this explicit in his discussion of how this metaphor works:  Because “the real cypress is just as absent from the metaphor as it is from thought and perception, there is nonetheless one real object that is never absent from our experience of art: namely we ourselves. Yes, it is we ourselves who stand in for the absent cypress and support its freshly anointed flame qualities” (83). The point is that in any aesthetic experience “that does not bore us”(83) all objects are by definition inaccessible to use, and we find in ourselves the “quality of flame” or whatever other quality is needed by the metaphor.  How exactly we contain all these qualities is not exactly clear—it seems a kind of Romantic expansion of the subject, until it just does contain all qualities just waiting to be experienced.

So, OOO turns out to be a traditional Romanic Subject oriented philosophy after all.  If you’ve read any earlier OOO texts, you probably got that sense already—and were likely confused and exasperated by the consistent assumption of one position while asserting another.  (An experience not unlike the one imbeciles like me tend to have with Western Buddhism.)

In concluding, I will just mention that there seems to me to be a promising alternative to the usual conservative anodyne offered by philosophy in a book I’ve been working through slowly. Robert Brandom’s Articulating Reasons, which I found after I saw it mentioned in a footnote of an essay I read, seems to me to offer a much needed correction to many of the crippling misconceptions we suffer under in most of our contemporary discourses about language, subjectivity, agency, and reason.  I expect my next couple of entries will be about this book—although probably not critical so much as an attempt to work through the presentation of inferentialism in Brandon’s book.  So far, I see no real ground to disagree with him, and the book has changed my thinking on some important points (a rare occurrence at my age, unfortunately).

So, fellow imbeciles, thoughts on OOO?  Or is it best left alone?

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this! I came across Harman a few years ago, and gave it a half hearted try. It sounded interesting, an approach to objects (having been mainly into postmodernism). I remember feeling like I didn’t “get it.” Like, either I wasn’t smart enough (always possible – philosophy isn’t my field), or there was no “it” to get. But I was left with curiosity, and now I know I needn’t worry.

  2. I suspect that many people have had the same experience with OOO. At least, this seems to be the experience of most of the people I’ve talked to about it: they assume there just MUST be something more to it because of all the books and articles by university professors…but it just doesn’t seem to say anything, really. So, they figure they aren’t smart enough, or expert enough in philosophy, to understand it. I think Harman’s book helps clear away that concern.

    But I think we still need to “worry” about it some–just because it is important to figure out why it is so appealing, and seems to “make sense”, to so many otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. I’m interested in this kind of pop philosophy for the same reason I’m interested in Western Buddhism or health-and-wealth Christianity: why do so many people who should know better accept this kind of nonsense? This seems to me important to figure out, if we want to survive the coming century.

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