Words put us in touch with things. Come, I’ll take you out to meet the great whites! the old ﬁsherman tells us. As he speaks to us, our attention is drawn not to images in his mind, nor images in ours, but drawn to the sharks themselves. When we go out to the ocean with him, he shouts: There they are! and his words make us see them, shadows deep in the turbulent waters. He recognizes individual sharks whose bodies, whose ways he knows; he identiﬁes a shark he has not seen before. We descend into the ocean with him, and meet these very sharks that his words on the boat have introduced us to and presented to us. And when, now, we speak of them, it is not concepts nor images in our minds but those very sharks that our words make present again to us.
Words do not simply label things we see and touch; they invoke and reveal things. They bring out traits in the complexity of a thing, map out relations in the dense tissue of nature. They focus our attention, they lead us to see contexts, sequences, interactions. They slow down and intensify the contact our bodies are making with things and events or accelerate them, turn them in new directions, focus the eyes and the hearing or let them drift. Chanting, intoning, blessing things, words enhance things, bring forth their glory. Insulting people, cursing events, words unleash forceful blows against them, mortifying them, wounding them. Words work an artistry on things, that of metaphor and metonymy. They reﬂect qualities, halos, colors from other things onto this thing. They endow things and events with names, titles, nicknames.
It is this word that makes you thoughtful. The rows of trees and the daily movement of clouds overhead, the birds that chatter in your back yard, the landmarks and the paths you take every day, the tasks that are laid out for you every day, the patterns of conversation with acquaintances, the concepts that exist to classify these things and the connections between them—these lull the mind which glows feebly in their continuities and recurrences; they do not make it thoughtful. Instead, thought results from language, thought arises out of the word you put to yourself—a word of honor. This word interrupts the continuities of nature and silences the babble of others in yourself. It is the power you feel in yourself when you ﬁx yourself with a word, stand and advance in that word, the feeling that you are making your own nature determinable, steadfast, trustworthy, that makes you look for regularities, necessities, calculable forms in the ﬂux of external nature. Once you have said “I will be a dancer,” you begin to really determine what the things about you are, you begin to understand anatomy, the eﬀects of exercise, of diet, the eﬀects of great teachers and grand models, the workings of a whole cross-section of urban society. It is the man or woman of his or her word who is thoughtful.
Your word of honor does not get its meaning from a dialectic and its use is not primarily in a language game with others. In fact the one who goes around saying to everyone “I’m going to be a dancer” is seeking their permission and support, and there is cause to suspect that he has not really or not yet ﬁxed these words on his heart. There are those who have never told anyone, and who are driven by their secret intoxication with this word. Secrecy sets this word apart from the profane common talk; it sacralizes it. Secrecy also maintains for yourself a space for giving free play to doubts, second thoughts about what you have said to yourself, as well as giving free play to fantasy about it.
Michael of Archive Fire has a fresh post up regarding the perilous task that lies ahead for the object-oriented enthusiast when it comes to justifying the concept of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. Michael’s post is characteristically generous and well-written and has me compelled to offer a continuation of his treatment on the topic (which itself seems to have been generated by this post from Levi Bryant).
I would like to suggest that we can frame this discussion within two conceptions of withdrawal: absolute and contingent (the first associated with the work of Tim Morton and Graham Harman, the second with Michael and Levi Bryant). I’ll explore the topic in general terms first–covering some familiar OOO debates as I go–and then move on to suggest that absolute withdrawal remains a valid thesis when thought in conjunction with what Alphonso Lingis calls “the imperative,” a central feature of Harman’s philosophy. Thinking imperatives and withdrawal together may clear up some of the issues Michael raises in his post or, at the very least, may move the discussion into deeper, unexplored thickets.
Lets traverse some basic territory first. With each new iteration, Bryant continues to develop his own “onticology” making it increasingly clear that his conception of objects–as processes or systems possessing operational closure–brings hims closer and closer to the work of Alfred North Whitehead. In my understanding, Bryant is arguing not for an absolute withdrawal, but a contingent withdrawal wherein a real object is deployed in and through its relations, though never fully so in any specific set of relations. What does this amount to? It seems to me, if I am reading Bryant correctly, that this form of contingent withdrawal suggests not the absolute absence of the real object, but a real object always-already deployed amidst a “regime of attraction;” objects are withdrawn in the sense that they are irreducible to relations and contexts, but not fully departed from all relations and contexts. (Side note: it is Bryant’s account of “regimes” where I feel closest to him philosophically, I have come to realize–rather slowly–that his use of this term is entirely compatible with how I use the word “ecology” in an expanded sense, but I digress).
Here we could draw a further connection between Bryant and Whitehead. For Whitehead, an actual occasion is deployed within a set of both prehensions and negative prehensions. In short, this means that an actual occasion is never fully exposed in any given scenario but only partially so depending on circumstance. This account is also very similar to the Harmanian distinction between real and sensual qualities, though differs in that for Bryant the real object is partially deployed, whereas for Harman the real object is completely withdrawn. It bears mentioning that I have a rather strange relation to the conception of objects-as-processes-partially-deployed. I am, on the one hand, thoroughly in debt to the work of Whitehead and count him as perhaps my strongest philosophical influence. On the other hand, I affirm the distinction between “real” and “sensual” objects advocated by Graham Harman and the “rift between essence and appearance” advocated Tim Morton. To be sure then, out of the three object-oriented philosophers that I mention above, it would seem most coherent for me to, following my cognitive debt to Whitehead, follow Bryant’s account of withdrawal, rather than Morton’s or Harman’s. And yet I’m not fully prepared to abandon absolute withdrawal just yet.
Lets take a look now at the crux of the issue. In his post Michael writes:
However, where I think OOO goes too far (at least with Harman and Tim Morton) is where they assign absolute identities to such potent beings to an extent where there is an imposition of metaphysical boundaries that do not actually exist…This radical boundary-making, I suggest, can only obscure the already complicated project of investigating BOTH the assembled efficacy and individuality of entities (their onto-specific potency, or ‘being’) and their fully implicated, material-energetic, processual, embedded and temporal relations (their ‘becomings’) simultaneously. I argue, counter-intuitively perhaps, that it is the onto-specific substantially of entities and assemblages that should caution us to avoid characterizing such complexities as merely “objects” or “relations – and talk more specifically about particular complexes distributed realities and the ecosystems they enact.
Michael’s concern here, as I read it, is that it makes no sense to experience and grapple with a relational, contingent world of affect whilst at the same time suggesting that this panoply of activity is the result of objects that do not touch–clearly all kinds of beings are crashing into one another everywhere! What a mess! So, if real entities everywhere are touching each other nowhere, than how is that anything is happening at all? And further, if it is the case that entities are withdrawn absolutely from one another then what possible sense of responsibility can we have towards such entities (a necessary question indeed)? Can we even be responsible to such entities?
The answer, for me, lies in the imperative. Objects are integral units dipolar in nature; mental and physical; affective and material; sensual and real; withdrawn and impelling. Much time has been spent discussing the withdrawal of objects from one another–an already bizzarre state of affairs. But what might be even stranger is the compelling, magnetic osmosis that seems to be occurring between the withdrawn cores of objects even as they only encounter one another indirectly. This, then, would be a response to Levi when he writes (on the problem of absolute withdrawal):
It’s not just that the object is empty for me, the person seeking to know the object. No, it is also that the object is empty for any other object, because the real being of the object is withdrawn from each and every object, existing in a self-contained vacuum, unable to touch any other object.
I would say that an absolute withdrawal and emptiness are not the same thing. Rather than an empty ontology I would suggest an interrogative ontology. It is the magnetic, impelling character of the real object’s withdrawal that, without directly coming into contact with another object, makes it have a real impact in the world–despite being withdrawn. But, one might correctly ask, if the withdrawn object is having effects its not totally withdrawn is it? I say yes it is precisely because an object has the power to impel other objects towards itself without those objects needing to have any direct knowledge or experience of the first object itself. It strange to think but knowledge and experience do not appear to be prerequisite in this account of causality.
In this sense I think vicarious causation provides a robust account of the real-sensual tension. Withdrawn, real objects are not passively existing dark voids of nothingness. Rather, real objects are endlessly attractive, compelling, and magnetic. I would describe this scenario by appealing to one’s own embodied experience. You are already reading, already listening, already thinking, already breathing. What does this mean? It means that the entity that is you, like all other entities in the cosmos, is compelled by the trillion things in your field of experience. This doesn’t mean that you are distracted or diffuse in attention necessarily (though I suspect that sometimes you are…) What it does mean, and this is a point that Harman’s Husserlian background brings to the fore so strongly, is that you are compelled forward by your intentional consciousness and its love affair with an always erupting cosmos. The gravity of those trillion things pulls your sensual experience into a pixelated encounter with the blooming entities that surround you, without ever revealing the whirring chrysalis at the heart of each entity (We might note that Tim Morton’s sympathy for this view could come from his Buddhist background, but this is conjecture on my part).
This alliance between withdrawal and the impellative nature of things makes the rift between essence and appearance seem tenable to me. Its almost as though each object is a dipolarized magnet; pulling you in and pushing you away simultaneously. Donna Haraway calls this ontological state of affairs “interpellation.” The inertia of some of these magnets can be quite compelling, almost as though even the smallest object has a Jupiterean mass forever hidden from experience, pulling other objects in and out of its orbit without ever revealing itself (just think of the affect of a split hydrogen atom and its role in history). These hidden Jupiters lurk within the depths of everything and have nothing to do with relational properties (qualitative or quantitative).
Michael’s post is well worth considering and I take both his and Levi Bryant’s work as theses both well articulated and demanding of attention. And I share Michael’s sentiment that, while in conversation with Bryant, Morton, and Harman, I count myself as a student and not a peer. Nevertheless, I remain sympathetic to absolute withdrawal.
Recently, I have come to realize that part of what I want to articulate through philosophy is a certain interrogative dimension to the relationship between things. In doing a quick search on what an “interrogative ontology” might mean, it came as no surprise that the two sources which reference the subject were from philosophers whose work is in close orbit to my own. The first comes from the essay on Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty “Questioning to the Nth Power: Interrogative Ontology in Merleau-Ponty and Delueze” (here) and the second comes from a book on (again) Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead entitled Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought, though the phrase in this context is in reference to Heidegger whom is credited as being the “initiator of interrogative ontology and of a radical reform of Western thought” (p. 71, here).
Interrogatives interest me insofar as they pose a question, lead elsewhere, and draw us forward. Moreover, they always draw us toward something, or rather, point out that we are already heading towards something. Perhaps this is also why I have been so taken by Alphonso Lingis as of late, this is very much what he argues in The Imperative. Lingis (and the phenomenological tradition before him), help us to take note that we never begin paying attention, we are already attending; we never begin to listen, we are already listening; we never begin to think, we are already thinking. It is this intersensorial plane within which we are always-already in that makes an interrogative ontology so appealing.
For Lingis, the imperative refers to the simple fact that we are already drawn into the world; already our senses are fixed upon its moving colors, drifting scents, and exploding sounds. In this way, the interrogative dimension is always at work. Every sensation and every thing exists both as itself and as a question; not a question waiting to be answered, or one that implies a solution hiding under the murky thicket of sensory life, but rather an open-ended question that draws one deeper into the recoiling depths of awareness. These depths seem to continually draw forth yet greater depth, filled with new dimensions of dark unpredictability.
In this sense the interrogative ontology is also a metaphysics of alterity. Here the exciting news is that alterity is not, in its first cosmic iterations, a strictly human, political concept. It is rather human beings whom recover the concept of alterity, drawing it from a deeper ontological well, and apply it to human ethics and politics. Alterity is often described as a synonym for “other,” “otherness,” “that which is other from identity.” What Levinas recovers in Totality and Infinity, is that the total always comes after the infinite; that infinity is a receding non-totalizable cascade, to be otherwise is to not be infinity. Levinas points to a cosmological mystery reckoned from the depths of being, rather than an invention at the level of human politics and awareness.
Thus the interrogative ontology and the metaphysics of alterity pose important cosmopolitical questions. Graham Harman, to his credit, has given us (or perhaps I should speak in the singular, has given me) some profound tools to think these questions. It is fair to say that Harman has provided just such an interrogative ontology that a metaphysics of alterity requires. Cosmopolitics then becomes a question of being attentive to all of the many-faced things coming forth, acting, and perishing in the cosmos. As my good friend Sam Mickey reminded me recently, Donna Haraway gives perhaps the best definition of cosmopolitics we could hope for. Cosmopolitics, Haraway says, is about “learning to play with strangers.”
“MINOS” is short for “Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search.” It is a large-scale particle physics experiment involving the apparatus you see in the first picture below. Wikipedia explains for us in short detail that: “the far detector has a mass of 5.4 kt. It is located in the Soudan mine in Northern Minnesota at a depth of 716 meters. The far detector has been fully operational since summer 2003, and has been taking cosmic ray and atmospheric neutrino data since early in its construction.”
Now, I’d like to think that my science literacy is of a reasonable level, but certainly nothing on par with the expertise it would require to actually evaluate the experimental data being generated by the MINOS detector. Thankfully my interest in this particular device lies elsewhere (you can see it exhibited quite clearly on the right wall of the picture of above). Its a painting by Joseph Giannetti designed to symbolize the scientific research happening at the Soudan Mine.
I couldn’t help but comment on the curious reality that, for at least the last 19,000 years (and surely for much longer), human beings have been taking to the treacherous depths of caves to translate their visions of the cosmos into visual form. Take the Caves at Lascaux for instance (pictured below). The images on the cave walls depict a variety of things: animals, humans, geometric shapes, and what appear to be astronomical charts of various constellations.
These paintings date back to 17,000 BCE. Are we still on the same mythic-scientific search to situate the human in relation to other beings and to the cosmos? It seems that way. As part of my recent devotion to the work of Alphonso Lingis I will leave you with a quote by the good professor on the subject of myth:
A myth is not simply the way a particular community organizes the environment into a meaningful pattern. It is not simply a map of the environment using more concrete symbols than those used in modern economics, sociology, political science, history, biology, physics, and astronomy. Myths are also visions, visions of visionaries and seers. Visions are not just just overarching conceptual frameworks; they are visualizations… The visionaries and seers do not simply map out symbolically and consecrate the established economy and politics of a community; they present another world (The First Person Singular, p. 107).
In order for a social re-orientation to occur, human beings need not just the relevant data collected by the sophisticated apparatus of a global technoscience, but also, and just as importantly, they need a vision with which to orient themselves. Climate science is a sheer testimony of this: we have all the data we need, but no one seems to be able to respond because the cosmological shift required to understand the entity called “climate change” cannot be coupled with the average subjectivity of industrialized humans. Here’s to envisioning a new story.
The further I explore the work of Alphonso Lingis, the more profoundly touched I become by the depth of his insight. Take the following quotations from his work in The First Person Singular. The first situates the relation between the human use of words in relation to world, the second expands this line of thinking to consider the perspective of other species, slowly eating away at our notions of inside and outside; individuals and collectives; representations and perception:
Words order our action: they organize our environment by segmenting it and demarcating paths and instrumental connections and by invoking possibilities and predicting consequences. They signal what has to be safeguarded, nurtured, repaired or built, and they sort out resources and urgencies. Our words are not only indicative or informative but also imperative: they launch and command our action or inaction (p. 28).
Extensive biological research has now shown that other species from pigeons to primates recognize what they perceive with a categorical intelligence…Coral fish, butterflies and wasps, birds of paradise and hummingbirds, zebras and foxes bear surface colors and patterns and utter distinctive cries with which they both recognize one another and are drawn to one another (p. 67).
In the first quotation Lingis draws our attention to the categorical intelligence which humans, as wielders of language, use to re-arrange the rubrik’s cube of phenomenal experience. In the second, we are invited to consider that this is not an exclusively human capacity, but is a categorical intelligence possessed by numerous other species. Lingis in this way forwards what one could call a biosemiotic framework that situates the human activity of categorical intelligence and symbol making amidst a wild and vast kaleidoscope of interacting semiotic activities performed by other species.
Lingis lifts the rock of first-person subjectivity from its dark, damp soil to reveal that what lurks beneath is not a solid and fixed unity, nor merely a socially constructed historical nomad, but rather the scurrying of thousands of microorganisms, organelles, and cells activated amidst a universe filled with other living beings. Indeed, first-person subjectivity is itself an ecological complex, filled with the mesh of what Tim Morton calls “strange strangers” — each intimately interwoven with our own being, each irreducibly alien to our own identity.
Thus we find ourselves in the staging grounds of not just a renewed conception of the first-person perspective, but also of the character and being of knowledge and its relationship to the world. “When we speak about things” Lingis writes “they become clearer; they break apart or connect up differently; words may well make things and situations first appear” (p. 37). And he continues:
Words, just because they fragment things and grasp them with their outlines or skeletons only or focus our attention on some unnoticed detail or some relationship with remote things, can cast over things strange auras and spells…With words we move lightly over things. And words, with their streaming and their syncopation, their soft or hard, warm or cold tonalities, their beat and their micromelodies, their rumble and their hisses, their harmonies and their dissonances, pick up and amplify the sonorities loud and latent in things. In doing so, they consecrate things and events (p. 62).
Note the attention Lingis pays to the tactility of words — the way they, in his prose, seem to leap from beyond the cranium and actually come into contact with various features of the world around them. In this light, I think, one might say that words act as objects in the world and the manner by which they act is ecological.
Words transform not just the environments which they disclose, but also feedback upon the one who uses them, transforming the subjectivity of the speaker in an ongoing and recursive way. How can we see this? Lingis highlights the important role paradigms play in scientific research, and their impact on research workers in a passage that could have come straight out of Kuhn:
The rational community subdivides into various scientific and technological communities. Communication within a scientific discipline or among workers in a technological field is based on the determinations of what could count as observations, what standards of accuracy in determination are possible, how the words of common language are restricted and refined for formulating observations in various scientific disciplines and practical and technological uses (p. 86).
And this one which could have come straight out of Latour:
[Paradigmatic observations and generalizations] function with collectives, connected by sympathies and antipathies, alliances and jealousies, devoted to enrichment through the exploitation of resources, labour sources, and markets; to collective defense; or to colonial, imperial, or corporate expansion. They direct movements of people seeking attachments and alliances with families, clans, other cultures, destitute people, with historical achievements and with landscapes and ecosystems. They animate gatherings and schisms within “society” and launch milieus, gangs, packs into adventures and follies (p. 89).
I have previously referred to a similar state of affairs through what one might call “The Ecology of Paradigms” the basic lesson of which I would now frame — following my encounter with object-oriented ontology — as the simple statement: paradigms are objects that shift relations amongst material systems, social power structures, and human psychologies. In other words, paradigms, like any other object, act in ways that are irreducible to both their emergence in defined relations (e.g., through the specific scientific practices which engender them) and to their originally defined purpose (e.g., their instrumental or utilitarian aims).
Thus we have so far seen that words, knowledge, and, in particular, paradigms, play a part in reconfiguring the larger ecologies of actuality they come in to contact with in a concrete, physical way. But paradigms also play a role in constituting the human research worker as she deploys a specific paradigm. On this point, Lingis writes:
The established rational discourse of the sciences and technologies not only organizes the regions of observed nature, implements, societies, and histories with its empirical laws supplying reasons for observations and its theories supplying reasons for empirical laws, but it also orders the discourse of individuals. The rational discourse of the sciences and technologies depends on speakers whose utterances formulate insights that can only be the insights of real individuals, who undertake to answer for what they say, to supply evidence for its truth (p. 90).
Words and worlds are indeed linked as independently existing, interactive actualities. The ontology which describes this relation is object-oriented. The ethics which organize the goals of such an inquiry are cosmopolitical. The way forward is ecological.
I started reading it today. Lingis is off to a good start out the gates:
See nature setting out by day the intricate designs of alpine flowers, flashing the crystal colors of the 319 species of hummingbirds. See the night lofting the powdery wings of 10,500 species of moths in North America, uncoiling huge flowers in the tropics. See the tiny rainbows flashing briefly on bubbles in the surf and the streaming vermillions and indigos of 25,000 species of coral fish. See how the setting sun emblazons the skies with unnamable colors different every evening, different every minute of every evening.
It is also by chance that the earth has glaciers, sequoias, giraffes, quetzals, chameleons, and orchids.
The sense of being separate and on our own is precarious. We are haunted by the possibility that our sense that we are conducting our lives is illusory. The possibility that our autonomy is abusive and pernicious makes us doubt its justification and validity (pp. 5 – 6).
For our eyes to dance in the dew sparkling across the canyon that the dawn is opening before us is to feel the quasi-visual form of ourselves as seen by the multiple eyes of the canyon. To see the weight of the fieldstones in a plot of land we are digging up for a garden is to feel the diagram of a grip forming in our postural schema, and the weightless force in our arms now emanates by itself in an immanent sense of the weight of our limbs which a fieldstone would feel as it struggles with our force…As we sing while walking through the forest and shout to the mountain cliffs we hear how we sound to the murmuring trees and in the great ear of the mountain (p. 62).
Strolling along the beach, eyes adrift in the azure light, the sea in waves meanders across our field of vision and sands flow in glitter under our feet. Then, crossing a rise, our eyes are drawn to a bleached gnarled log whose contours curve back upon themselves and whose visible surfaces are packed with the grainy density of its substance, its weight, and its muffled inner resonance. Our gaze is refracted to the outlying tufts of salt grass in the hollow which stabilizes as its site, containing so many viewpoints turned to it. The hollow where a piece of driftwood from the sea has come to rest closes in upon itself, a refuge for the driftwood and for our body too; the undulating seascape of azure breezes and glittering sand flow halts at the rims of this hollow, as the open sea is obliterated from the stable workspace of a reader seated in his cabin on board ship (p. 69).
A thing is not simply the set of internal relations with all other things. It pushes back the other things and clamors for our attention. It is not simply a relay for a movement that stakes out directions and paths beyond it. It is also a terminus for our perception. Things are ends and not means only. The tasks they present to us designate themselves as what is to be accomplished.
Perception which aims for things also sinks into things. Perception has been too much conceived as an apprehension, a movement of the sensory-motor organism outward which returns to itself, an exploration that enriches itself with content assimilated and forms grasped. Our gaze emanates from our eyes and sinks into the depths of things, and also passes between things to dissipate in the distance. It turns into sensuality and enjoyment (p. 69).
A visitor brings a vase of jasmine into our hospital room. The elegant spray of the stems, the coil of the petals lure our eyes, which travel up and about them. The fervent white of the flesh of the petals draws our eyes to catch on to the way the petals condense and occupy space. But soon our gaze softens, and sinks into the balmy insistence of their substance, in the involution of enjoyment. Our gaze is connected with the plenum, and forgets the outlying room with its pathways and other things and extends into an endurance. It can happen that the cumulus white of the jasmine extends into a fathomless depth and perception becomes a specific kind of warmth and pleasure, as when we abandon ourselves to the bliss of the sky or the glimmering light in the blue of the sea (pp. 69 – 70).
- Alphonso Lingis
Life lives on sensation; the elements are a nourishing medium…The light is not just transparency which the gaze slips through on its way to distant surfaces; our gaze delights in the vivacity of the light itself. It assimilates in its languor the soft depths of the dark. The sonority is not just a succession of sense data which the hearing identifies as signals and information-bits; the ears are contented with the resonance of realm beyond realm as with a content. The touch lets go of things to relish the terrestrial and solar warmth. The earth extends its indefinite expanses before the steps of the nomad who is not scouting for any retreat, moved by his appetite for open roads and uncharted deserts. Erotic sensuality is not a hunger…It surges in a vitality that lacks nothing, is fed and sheltered and contended, a vitality that greets the earth, the skies, the day and the night with the ardor of kisses and caresses.
- Alphonso Lingis