by Adam Robbert
Discussing the differences between contingent and absolute withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy with Michael (Archive Fire) has produced a surplus of exciting topics to explore. The foremost of these issues hinges upon the difference between a realist and a materialist account of object-oriented philosophy. Michael and I share a pragmatic aim and would most likely vote along the same party line in any cosmic election. However, we still remain at opposite ends when considering the merits of contingent and absolute withdrawal. Michael advocates for the former and I for the latter. Let me take a few moments to unpack why I think that realism has advantages over materialism (which I think is a good descriptor of Michael’s position) and why the ontology of withdrawal is better respected by such an account.
First, let me go into a little more detail regarding my understanding of the ‘objects’ of object-oriented philosophy (I am drawing here from Graham Harman’s work and the interested reader should consult his books for further information). So far the debate has centered upon only one dimension of Harman’s account of objects, when in fact there are four dimensions to his story. To briefly recover some of the insights from Guerilla Metaphysics, Harman argues that an object is split into a fourfold tension deployed along two axes. Along axis-1 the object is split between (a) the object in-itself and (b) the object as deployed in a specific relation. Along axis-2 the object is split along (a) its unity as a whole object and (b) its multiplicity as a collective entity consisting of a network of features.
A simpler way of saying this is that an object is both substance and relation; a unity and plurality. Also note that Harman’s fourfold object is a synchronic rather than a diachronic entity in regards to its plural existence (I am applying the labels synchronic and diachronic, I can’t recall Harman using these terms specifically though they seem appropriate). As a synchronic entity, the object is not a substance and then a relation, but an episodic substance/relation simultaneously. In this sense Harmanian objects are a lot like Whiteheadian actual occasions in the sense that objects have a temporal character to their nature, rather than just a Newtonian spatial one (actual occasions “concresce” through threefold prehensions; but thats another story).
The fourfold nature of the object is essential to understanding the absolutely withdrawn character of the object. If we focus just on axis-1 we can see that, by definition, the object in-itself is the substantial object that is not deployed in a specific relation. If we are talking about the object deployed in an onto-specific scenario we are discussing only aspect (b) and never aspect (a). This has already transformed the nature of objects to fit a materialist ontology, when in my understanding it is ontology that should be trying to fit its descriptions around objects (no matter how strange things get). What we get by emphasizing only half of axis-1 is thus always materialism and not realism. Materialism is always windmill materialism.
What is windmill materialism? Windmill materialism is an example I draw from Guerilla Metaphysics but, again, is not a phrase that Harman uses in the text. Harman writes:
To give an example, it cannot really be said that windmills are made of ladders, pumps, rotating blades, and wire-mesh crow’s nests. Or rather, it is made of these things only in a derivative, material sense. Although the windmill needs these smaller parts in order to exist, it never fully deploys these objects in their totality, but makes use of them only by reducing them to useful caricatures. That is to say, a windmill does not fully sound the depths of its own pieces any more than a human observer does. It merely siphons away the needed qualities from these objects, just as animal stomachs reduce the sparkling allure of fruits to brutal, one-dimensional fuels. To reverse an old cliche, there is a sense in which the sum of the parts is always greater than the whole. The whole is always a simplification of its parts. The windmill caricatures the ladder and the pump, ignoring their full reality by harnessing them to a specific formal task (pp. 93-94).
With such a specific example in mind we can reiterate the central tension between materialist and realist object-oriented philosophies. In the materialist position, contact between the windmill and its parts is direct but partial. In the realist position contact between the windmill and its parts is indirect and vicarious. In each version, the windmill is irreducible to both its component parts and its possible contexts and uses. The difference is that in the former (materialist) position direct contact with the partially exposed core of an object is being made, whilst in the latter (realist) position all contact is vicarious.
In both materialist and realist object-oriented philosophies we have already obtained a large storehouse of commensurable ideas. In both variants we can say that the whole is less than its parts and the the parts are more than the whole. This is a crucial insight that can be reached from either the materialist and realist postions. For this we should applaud both camps since it tells us some very interesting ontological truths about reality. From this insight we know, for example, that reductionism will always multiply the number of beings in the cosmos, while holism will always reduce the number of beings in the cosmos. Hooray for both materialist and realist object-oriented philosophies!
We are left then with the question of why we should go beyond the materialist account and opt for the realist one. Recall that the realist account of absolute withdrawal is not a the result of a an exclusively human, cognitive deficit. It is an ontological position regarding relations in general. Everywhere there is an onto-specific set of particularity and interactivity — the flesh of some embodied interaction — but just as each unity is also a diversity, each embodied particular is also an absolutely withdrawn alterity. In this context alterity is both absolute alterity and ontological alterity. Thus when Michael in his most recent post writes:
This is it precisely: if we willfully ignore the characteristic differences between the capacity for knowledge (cognitive powers) and the capacity for contact (powers of the flesh) we generate unwarranted and empirically invalid assumptions about the nature of object-object relations.
I think this quite misses the point. By positioning alterity as an ontological feature of things I think we can reframe Michael’s point above in the following way. If the ontological character of relations is fundamentally about prehension — each entity’s unique enactment of an onto-specific world — then we do not have a split between “cognitive powers” and “powers of the flesh.” Rather we (humans) have something like enfleshed cognitive powers; a result of our embodied particularity’s engagement with the cosmos. In a sense then, epistemology is the onto-specific mode of translation each entity engages to enact its universe. Snails and bonobos have fleshy epistemologies just likes humans. Even stars might have some kind of episteme in this sense (I think I just heard lots of cries of disappointment and ridicule from somewhere over yonder…) The point is that the cognitive and the embodied are two phases of the same integral entity. Thinking is a kind of touch and touching is a kind of thinking; and alterity is always a part of this process.
Lets unpack alterity a little more. Alterity in (realist) object-oriented philosophy is always absolute alterity because, just as an object is irreducible to its relations or onto-specific deployments, an object is also irreducible to the differences between it and all other objects. Alterity is a synonym for withdrawal. The irreducibly real alterity of objects is not present — either partially or fully — in any specific set of relations and as such absolute alterity is metaphysical alterity insofar as it is not a feature of material relations. The alterity of entities in the cosmos forms an ecology of otherness, a negative ecology juxtaposed to the positive ecology of relations, wherein the cosmic others can be palm trees, coconuts, salamanders, or supernovas. (Harman notes that the medium of exchange between entities is always interior to some larger object formed by an encounter between entities. Harman calls the task of describing the metaphysics of the interiors of objects “endo-ontology.” I use the simple phrase “ecology” to describe the same thing).
To be sure metaphysical alterity doesn’t mean that real things aren’t happening to real beings in real relations. It also doesn’t mean that the onto-specific and ever-present political dimensions of history are somehow erased. Precisely the opposite is the case; an object’s essence is right here, not on some transcendental plane. It is immediately close and vulnerable, capable of being destroyed, whilst also discreetly ungraspable. Object-oriented philosophy is not a god’s unique perspective on things, its a thing’s perspective on things and as such share as all the intimately contingent problematics any materialist could ever want. By positing alterity as a feature of things, object-oriented philosophy is suggesting that a view from nowhere is impossible; but, as Isabelle Stengers or Alfred North Whitehead might say, a speculative account of the nature of things apart from us is an incumbent feature of any philosophy that tries to think ethics and change the world. This is in reference to the twofold nature of terms like “cosmopolitics” or “speculative realism.”
I suppose thats enough for now as this post has already gotten quite lengthy. I’d like to end on one final note about materialism. I in no way reject materialism as a premise that must be grappled with or deployed when appropriate. History is filled with the profound and positive effects of materialism (I of course mean more in the Marxist or scientific senses than in the consumerist ones). My only point is that I don’t think materialism goes far enough in its account of the real when doing speculative philosophy. To be sure there is nothing that says that one must do speculative philosophy and I myself don’t always find it a practice necessary or appealing. But my concern is less with the completeness of a particular philosophy and more with how well it is composed. In this sense I look for better and worse materialisms and not a simple materialism/anti-materialism binary. I’m a pragmatist at heart and when it comes to looking for the best materialist philosophies, I think the object-oriented versions are surely at the top of that list even if I tend towards the realist account more.