After Nature on Values, Animals, and OOO
by Adam Robbert
Leon has a an excellent post up concerning a recent NPR article discussing the important question, do animals grieve? The answer of course, is an emphatic “Yes!” The go-to scientist for research into cognitive ethology is Mark Bekoff (whom I have discussed here and here) as well as more generally the diverse field of integral ecology (of which I would consider myself a proud member).
After shooting down a few of the most common, and unwarranted, criticisms of the OOO framework (e.g., OOO is “human hating;” nihilistic; depreciates the cosmos by turning everything into a “disposable object”) Leon moves into the more interesting territory regarding what OOO has to offer ethics, aesthetics, and ecology — three strands that continue to become more deeply entangled as OOO continues to develop. Leon writes:
I don’t see deanthropocentrizing the human as a “leveling” out or “bringing down” the human to the level of objects, but rather as the opposite: bringing all objects up to an equal level of value and importance, a place that the human *used* to occupy alone (and hence not an overmining). Again, this is what I take to be a realism about univocal value. Sure, rocks or pens may *matter less* in context, but fundamentally, the fact that anything is, rather than is not, means that “is” has a value in and of itself. Thus how I see a “universe of objects.”
This is exactly right. Often times ontology, cosmology, or metaphysics are used as blunt instruments to belittle the concrete reality of humans (or quasars, tadpoles, or sunsets). What is lost in this mode of reduction however, is precisely what Leon calls our attention to. By placing the human in cosmological solidarity with all other entities in the universe the line between “humanness” and “nonhummaness” becomes increasing blurred — though not indistinguishable!
By cosmologizing the human we are placing her within the context of the multibillion year processes from which she emerges. At the same time, we are noting that such a contextualization returns to the cosmos it’s interior, withdrawn nature. The impact of this cosmological maneuver are two fold:
1) It reveals that the human has not been traumatically “decentered” by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite “traumatic” decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stopped whining about the poor european psyche’s “displacement” and realized that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things. Now, this statement is a bit of a paradox. For while cosmologizing the human does place her within a 14 billion year heritage, it also presents a frightening consequence. Because everything has an interior, withdrawn nature capable of prehending it’s environment (and in this way spreads experience throughout the cosmos) it means that we emit, along with everything else, a sort of misty contextual zone. This brings us two point #2.
2) The surprise epiphany of OOO and what we can call philosophical cosmology (after David Ray Griffin’s distinction between Whitehead’s cosmology and standard scientific cosmology) is that the panexperientialist universe is teaming with what Donna Haraway calls “significant otherness.” In other words, the philosophical cosmology evoked by Whitehead (and carried forth in some patches of OOO) renders not a cosmos of empty space punctuated by random blips and dots hopelessly colliding with another inside of the cold container of space-time. Rather, the Whiteheadian cosmos is a vast ecology –at an ontological level — of strange beasts and critters each emitting their own worldspaces much like a tree exhales oxygen. Thus while the human joins this entangled cosmic marsh bank, she is a refugee, floating in an alien world, just as she is perfectly alike, at an ontological level, to all the other entities in the cosmos.
What else can we glean from the ethics, ecology, and aesthetics of OOO? Leon is already on to it:
Yes, objects in the universe of ontological parity can be anything: pencils, pens, rocks, distant stars, etc. Yes, various scales are at work, each object encompassing and encompassed by another (Justus Buchler was on to this long ago). Yet the withdrawal of these objects seems crucial above all else. It means that in their own being-an-object, objects do “flee” from access to them. The comprehensibility, the knowing or totalizing of each object’s own distinct value forever eludes us – it cannot ever be fully represented to another (although, as I argue elsewhere, I think aesthetic feeling and empathy are crucial and important here). Stating that objects can be fully known, that their inner essence can be grasped indubitably, or that objects can be totalized *is* nihilism and anti- … object-ism? An autonomous zone of the object is the spring-point of *its own* essence, its own, for all intents and purposes, “subjectivity” or better, its own “perspective.” Thus the own unique “center point” of objects. Philosophies of access which lay claim to exhausting that center are the true nihilistic philosophies.
In this way, OOO may very well be the first substance-based, anti-essentialist philosophy (because apparently thats possible!) Leon is right to suggest that all objects are for-themselves. But I think we can say that objects are also always for-another. Thus an OOO ethics might imply that all entities are ends-in-themselves, and, as sensual objects, are a-means-for-another, where neither the for-itself or the for-another exhausts the actual nature of the object. This is an interesting twist, especially when placed in the context of environmental or ecological ethics where value is often described in terms of the related factors of utility, market-value, and scarcity. A full development of this idea will have to wait for another post.
Leon ends with some interesting reflections on the use of the word “objects.” He writes:
Per the above article [on animal grief] I think that being decentered means that realizing that animals, too, are objects (but I ask: other than to shy from former conceptions of “subjectivity” as in idealism gone wrong, why not “subjects” or at the very least “perspectives.”
This is an excellent question and one I have contemplated numerous times. For the integral ecologist, apperception (following William James and Whitehead) is the fundamental feature of the universe with which everything participates (IE is close to panpsychism, panexperientialism, and pansemiotics), and indeed one of it’s main influential figures is Thomas Berry who famously stated: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Of course the “objects” Berry had in mind were Cartesian objects robbed of interiority and value, ripped apart by greed and neoliberal industrialization, and not the erupting, molten cores of activity that Graham Harman has in mind. In this sense, I think we are arguing over terminolgy when in fact the spirit and message underlying both is greatly the same.
Great post Leon.