Further Drafts of an OOE
by Adam Robbert
In order to articulate an object-oriented ecology we shall take three traditional domains of philosophy and reframe them from an object-oriented perspective. By reviewing the ontology, ethics, and epistemology of an object-oriented ontology one can make a first pass at demonstrating how such an approach can make strong contributions to environmental ethics, political ecology, and integral ecology. This review of an object-oriented ontology (OOO) centers on two themes: Graham Harman’s “vicarious causation” (2007), and Tim Morton’s “strange stranger” (2010), each of which contain the related notions of “withdrawal” and “alterity,” respectively. Subsequently, Harman’s notion of withdrawal and Morton’s strange stranger are shown to create significant links between ontology and ethics. Lastly, the epistemology implied by both the ethical imperatives issued by the strange stranger, and the ontological character of withdrawal, offer a rejoinder to scientific approaches to ecology, that, essential as they are, require constructive reconsideration in light of what Isabelle Stengers has called “cosmopolitics” and an “ecology of practices” (2010). In this sense, ontology, ethics, and epistemology are intimately related within the body of an object-oriented ecology. Harman, Morton, and Stengers thus make important contributions to the articulation of an object-oriented ecology.
To begin, we explore Harman’s notions of “withdrawal” and “vicarious causation,” both of which are substantial features of his object-oriented philosophy (2005). Harman forwards that “withdrawal” is a fundamental feature of any and all relations (2007), a concept best explained using his own examples: “When I stare at a river, wolf, government, machine, or army, I do not grasp the whole of their reality. This reality slips from view into a perpetually veiled underworld, leaving me with only the most frivolous simulacra of these entities. In short, the phenomenal reality of things for consciousness does not use up their being” (2011 p. 39). What does it mean that, for Harman, staring at a “river, wolf, government, machine or army” does not exhaust their being? It means that objects are always “withdrawing” from relations. In other words, no matter how many perspectives and relations one arrays around a given object, the object will never be exhausted by those relations or perspectives (Harman 2005).
The relationship between a real object, which is always withdrawn, and its sensual encounter in perception, which is always displayed for another entity, requires us to introduce Harman’s second claim about objects. If objects are always withdrawing from one another, yet simultaneously generating real causal effects, what is it that occurs between two objects when they influence one another? Harman has called this mode of causation “vicarious,” connoting that it is the manner in which “relations never directly encounter the autonomous reality of their components.” (2007 p. 189). Vicarious causality implies that all interactions are mediated by some set of sensual characteristics, drawn out of the relations between objects. These mediations, for Harman, always occur on the interior of a larger object (2005 pp. 202-206).
Taking an object-oriented perspective on ecology, then, means that each object, each entity, is simultaneously itself and environment for some other object. This is already a profoundly ecological view. Further, because all objects ultimately withdraw from any and all relations, each must be thought of as an irreducible entity, closed upon itself as a unique force deployed in the universe. However, while the object withdraws from its relations, it is also, as we have seen, opening, revealing itself to a new set of relations, and always housing a series of constitutive entities which themselves unleash their own display of attributes upon the environment. These openings, however, never exhaust the fullness of the entity at hand, there is always a surplus, something real gets left out. In other words, for Tim Morton, an object-oriented perspective implies a return to the notion of substance – “Our era is witness to the emergence of a renewed Aristotelianism, an object-oriented ontology that thinks essence as right here, not in some beyond.” The awareness that substance is simultaneously of this world, yet withdrawn, is an essential feature of an object-oriented ecology as this realization aligns oneself amidst a democracy of real entities, each producing multiple effects, yet each infinitely beyond ones ability to know them completely through any set of interactions.
Thus for Morton, humans, as organisms, literally are the environments for other species of critters- this much any biologist will tell you. Each human body, its own distinctly irreducible entity in the world, also houses millions upon millions of bacteria, each of which symbiotically help to enact the experience of what it is to be “human.” Indeed even what is called the “first-person perspective” is always already the outcome of billions of organisms swarming around the noetic coral reef we call the human body. Perspective is the democratic achievement of a multitude of actors, or, as Morton puts it, “Thinking itself is an ecological event” (2010 p. 8). Morton’s thought here conjures the familiar image of a vast system of interconnecting entities, but this interconnection is more like a “mesh,” a web and its gaps instead of just its silken threads (2010 p. 28). In other words, what connects entities in this mesh is not just the characteristics of entities or the causal relations between them, but also the strange ways in which entities don’t connect, or at least, don’t encounter one another fully for what they are- withdrawn infinities knotted together in a mesh of sensual relations. Otherness, and the negative space between interactions, are ultimately nontotalizable, the mesh “transcends iconography” (2010b p. 276). Such withdrawn infinities call to mind what Morton calls “stranger strangers,” and they are all around us.
The alterity of the strange stranger is not an epistemological effect, it is not simply a question of knowing, or knowing more, about the others we are wedded to. No, quite the contrary, the strange stranger cracks open and reveals an ontological fissure in the state of things. These other entities swarming about us are not just strange, they are irreducibly strange. Thus Morton: “Even if biology knew all the species on Earth, we would still encounter them as strange strangers, because of the inner logic of knowledge. The more you know about something, the stranger it grows” (2010 p. 17). In this way, an object-oriented approach to ecology, contra other integral approaches to ecological thinking, is not about expanding spheres of inclusion, but rather accentuates the intimate encounter with the stranger where intimacy is productive of greater relationship, but also of greater detail and distance: “Far from gradually erasing strangeness, intimacy heightens it” (2010 p. 41). The withdrawal of substance, then, joins the unveiled display of an objects sensual qualities to suggest that, alterity (which in this context is understood as a kind of withdrawal), is present and fundamental to any set of relations. For alterity to be a feature of all relations means that “otherness” exists between humans and other humans, just as it does be humans and nonhumans, or between nonhumans themselves. All entities are sensually interpreting the other entities around them, though never fully accessing the withdrawn otherness of their objects of interpretation. Thus just as humans interpret the world around them in a way that is influenced by the structure of their organism, specific symbolic systems, or the socially mediated conditions of knowledge production, so to do icebergs, palm trees, and cheetahs interpret the world around them in a manner specific to their own structures of translation and interaction. The world may seem a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion, but it blooms and buzzes for elephants and orchids just as much as it does for humans.
Morton’s ecological thinking invites the “uncanny” realization that even those creatures that share a body (Lynn Margulis’ “endosymbionts”) are disturbingly alien to each other. The ecological thought, then, means that “existence is always coexistence” (2010 p. 4). There is no self without other. And yet, with all this talk of “interconnection” and “coexistence” the question of alterity continues to loom large in Morton’s ecological thinking. Despite the closeness and mutual dependency of ecosystems, despite the complex networks of planetary interconnectivity, despite the fact that all complex life forms house millions of smaller organisms, all entities remain (infinitely) estranged to the entities around them, even as they encounter one another in finite sets of interaction. The paradoxical connection and withdrawal of all entities is also central, then, to questions of alterity insofar as it implies the participatory nature of relationship- all entities are both with and without each other in each instance of interaction.
As we have seen, even the very practice of human thought, and indeed a practice of human ethics, is an ecological event in that there could be no thought, no ethics, without the necessary aid of the stranger, deployed in all its strangeness within the very being trying to think ethics. Ethical relations to the other, which Morton generalizes to any entity whatsoever (rather than only human others) are in this way constitutive of thought and philosophy itself. Morton’s is a Levinasian “ethics as first philosophy” with an ontological and biological twist. Where Levinas saw the infinite obligation to the other expressed in “the face” of another human, Morton has freed ethics from its anthropocentric shackles so that all entities have joined the human on an ontological concourse of ethical obligation. Of course, once one encounters Morton’s ecological thought the very question of the “human” and “nonhuman” becomes problematic at best, and hopelessly outdated at worst- especially when one considers the latest insights of cognitive ethology (the study of animal interiors and subjectivity). As Morton suggests “Humans are like “animals,” but “animals” are not “animals,” as we are beginning to see” (2010 p. 41).
The undeniable interconnection of entities, juxtaposed with the withdrawal of entities from one another, pose important questions for environmental ethics and ecology. An object-oriented ecology places all entities, both human and non, organic and inorganic, on the same causal plane. Similarly, vicarious causation, as a principle of interaction, is as true of the relationship between caterpillars and dandelions as it is of Spanish armadas and ocean waves. Effectively, the strange stranger and vicarious causation democratize causality leading to the further query “What would a truly democratic encounter between truly equal beings look like what would it be- can we even imagine it?” (2010 p. 7). This is a central question for an object-oriented approach to ecology in particular, and for environmental ethics in general. An object-oriented ecology, then, may overcome many of the issues of “biocentric,” “ecocentric,” or “anthropocentric” approaches to ethics insofar as each of these three privileges a centering of value in a specific domain of interaction, and not others. From an object-oriented perspective, value is not situated in the royal province of the human mind (anthropocentric), nor is it given only to “life forms” or the “natural” systems that support them (biocentric and ecocentric, respectively). Rather, an object-oriented perspective forwards an ethic based on the ecological democracy of all entities, regardless of where they register on human/nonhuman, or cultural/natural scales. The compatriots of existence are present to one another right here and now, yet their cores remain cloaked and unavailable to complete knowledge. In this way an object-oriented approach to ecology and environmental ethics views values and perspectives as distributed amongst all entities, with an ethical call that echoes throughout being.
The ethics of an object-oriented ecology thus joins what Isabelle Stengers has called “cosmopolitics.” Scientific knowledge-making, as described by Stengers, is primarily a creative endeavor that situates scientific knowledge as a productive enterprise that generates new insights, objects, and perspectives (2010). Further, the conception of science as a generative enterprise, requires, according to Stengers, an “ecology of practices,” which situate scientific knowledge making in terms of its effects on other communities of humans and nonhumans, in addition to its truth value (2010 pp. 32-40). Stengers suggests that ecology has a dual meaning, one scientific, the other political (2010 p. 32). Ecology, in the political sense, for Stengers, means that: “Ecological practice (political in the broadest sense) is then related to the production of values, to the proposal of new modes of evaluation, new meanings…they are about the production of new relations that are added to a situation already produced by a multiplicity of relations” (2010 p. 32). The ecology of practices is a call to understand the way in which science is ethically situated within a complex and “entangled coexistence” (2010 p.34) that implicates both scientists and nonscientists, humans and nonhumans. For Stengers, “ecology is, then, the science of multiplicities, disparate causalities, and unintentional creations of meaning” (2010 p. 34).
The sciences, through cosmopolitics, are thus engaged in a “symbiotic agreement” with other modes of knowledge and other communities of entities. The symbiotic agreement is “an event, the production of new, immanent modes of existence, and not the recognition of a more powerful interest before which divergent particular interests would have to bow down” (2010, p. 35). Cosmopolitics calls societies of humans and nonhumans to produce a mode of “reciprical capture,” pointing to the “coinvention of identities,” in which the life sciences, ecology in particular, play a large role in creating and sustaining new modes of existence amongst beings (e.g., through technology, medicine, and genetics). Far from calling into question the validity of scientific knowledge per se, Stengers moves to examine the proliferation of multiple sciences and their effects in the world. This examination aims to produce an ethical relation to science, and epistemology in general, in order to create democratic, cosmopolitical relationships alongside of the generation of new scientific concepts.
Thus, Stengers assessment of the role of the sciences, vis-à-vis cosmopolitics and the ecology of practices, provides a useful rubric to which one can apply Morton’s notions of ecology and alterity, and Harman’s ontological notion of withdrawal. Scientific knowledge, in the context of an object-oriented ecology, then, recapitulates epistemologically what vicarious causation and the strange stranger have already demonstrated ontologically and ethically. Scientific knowledge does not approach the withdrawn core of an entity any more than art, religion, or philosophy do.
In this way, despite recognizing the importance of the sciences, an object-oriented ecology does not necessarily cede control of ecological knowledge to scientific methods alone, even as it does not deny the huge importance of the scientific method. It is correct to suggest, as Morton has, that “science is too important to be left to scientists” (2010b p. 275). An object-oriented approach to ecology recognizes that ecology is simultaneously a problem and a question best responded to by an approach that is multiple, attentive to not just the material conditions of ecological systems, but also to the sociopolitical and psychic domains that are as much a part of ecological thinking as the material substrates from which they emerge. In other words, ecology, like philosophy, has to be about everything. The negotiations between the sciences and the realm of the social and the psychic (domains which are surely interpenetrating) require an account of the epistemological and ethical value of scientific knowledge. One cannot do without scientific knowledge in thinking about ecology, nor can one assume that the problems posed by ecology- particularly as they currently manifest as crises of mass extinction and climate disruption- are solvable from within the domain of the physical sciences alone. An object-oriented ecology approaches this dilemma by democratizing our notions of ontology, making ethical ones relations to human and nonhuman others, and by adding a cosmopolitical dimension to scientific epistemes.
We have thus encountered three important elements of an object-oriented ecology. First, all objects simultaneously withdraw from, and encounter one another. The substance of any entity is infinitely far away from both our interactions with it, and our knowledge of it; nevertheless it is capable of effecting other objects through vicarious causation. As Harman and Morton have suggested, this is not simply a human problem based in knowledge, but is an ontological principle of relations. Second, the strange stranger is both present to us, but adrift in its own self-enclosed infinity. The principle of vicarious causation thus connects ontology to the important ethical considerations raised by the question of alterity. In this way ethical relations are extended to all objects, causality becomes democratized, and agency is distributed throughout the mesh of all interacting others. Lastly, In addition to providing the ontological principle of vicarious causation and the ethical imperatives drawn from the strange stranger, we also have an epistemological principle evidenced by Stenger’s constructivist approach to science vis-à-vis cosmopolitics and the ecology of practices. An object-oriented ecology thus asks the remaining, crucial, questions: What does it mean to engage all entities in the universe as participating in a common socius? How do we construct ethical practices that align ourselves with the multitude of strange strangers to which we are connected? What practices of science must be taught in order to satisfy the conditions of a truly cosmopolitical approach to knowledge? These questions and more remain on the horizon for an object-oriented ecology.
Harman, Graham. 2011. The quadruple object. Washington: Zero Books.
———. 2007. On vicarious causation. Collapse 2 : 187.
———. 2005. Guerilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
Morton, Timothy. 2010. The ecological thought Harvard University Press.
———. 2010. Queer ecology. Journal of the Modern Language Association of America 125 (2): 273.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Though Morton and Harman, along with Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost form the major players of object-oriented philosophies, I have included Isabelle Stengers in this discussion because her philosophy, linked as it is to that of Bruno Latour, strongly includes the presence of nonhuman entities and objects in her constructivist approach to science. I feel this makes her philosophy distinct from, but relevant to, discussions of object-oriented ontologies.