sábado, 15 de enero de 2011

Some Problems With Object Oriented Ontology: Reality, Relation, Knowledge


Some Problems With Object Oriented Ontology:

- Reality, Relation, Knowledge -


I – Withdrawal and Relation, Reality and Sensation
I was just thinking about some of my lingering preoccupations and questions about Object Oriented Ontology, which have in some ways remained even after my series of exchanges and conversations with Graham and Levi, through e-mails, at last year’s OOO conference, and in the blogs. I think in the past I might have been a bit too obscure when formulating  these, so I want to reformulate some of my concerns, this time aided by a few diagrams which help illustrate where the problem lies as I see it.

Concretely, my questions arise with respect to the thesis of withdrawal, i.e. the thesis that real objects recede when entering relations to other objects. The latter is supplemented with the thesis that two objects only enter in relation inside a third object, in which the first two become mediated. This third object is endowed with a unity and provides a reductive buffer zone where the two initial objects meet. The real objects underlying the relation, for their part, remain ontologically subsistent even if the relation and thus the mediating object under which it enters with another object is destroyed.

 For clarity’s sake, I will use in what follows the example proposed by Joseph Goodson about myself and my computer. First, we run the hypothetical thesis that there exist two real objects with a subsistent, endogenous structure, myself and my computer. Let us say at one point I am in class, away from my computer, and no seeming relation between the two occurs then. We simply have two isolated substances of the following form:

  That is coarse enough for a diagram! It must be noted that Graham's The Quadruple Object delivers a much more rich and contrived set of diagrams that the embarrassing ones presented here. Hopefully, these modest attempts will suffice for the points I seek to advance provisionally. In any case, things get more interesting in the next step.

  Provided I have understood Graham correctly, the next stage would describe how these two real objects enter into relation. As described above, this involves the appearance of a third object which buffers the two. Expanding Heidegger’s thesis that theory distorts or reduces its intentional object in relation, Graham argues that all relations between objects must perform this occlusion/reduction. Thus, the third object which constitutes the intentional relation between the two hosts is an emergent new object also called real, insofar as it is an entity ontologically irreducible to its parts, and which only obtains when two or more real objects enter in relation. The real objects corresponding to this relation would nevertheless remain thereby withdrawn from what would be communicated/transmitted and given inside the unified buffer of this third and emergent real object.

  One might thereby question whether we should include within this third real object the 'real objects' that constitute their hosts. This is a fairly interesting point in its own right, but has no bearing for my argument here. In what follows I capture the withdrawal thesis by excluding the real objects from the new real object qua emergent intentional relation, insofar as the aspects buffered therein do not comprise the totality of the entities which enter into the relation. So, to run with our basic example, let us imagine that I return home after class, and sit down with to my computer and start typing a blog post in it. The next diagram expresses the relation which obtains thus:

APPENDIX - January 28th / 2011
I know the arrows for 'translation' indicated here are debatable for the reasons which follow from those outlined above, but I don't think their placing affects the argument I shall offer below in any case. Also, this diagram seems to contradict Graham's claim that relations are always asymmetrical, i.e. a real object only ever interacts with a sensual one, and vice versa. No two real objects ever touch, just as no sensual objects touch. This, however, is problematic as I see it, and warrants a different reconstruction. The reason is that at the very least a considerable number of relations produce a bilateral distortion of their objects: when I type in my computer the latter distorts me and apprehends only a sensual correlate relative to its capabilities, reducing me to some relation specific construction (the fingers pressing it...). But by the same token, my fingers likewise reduce the computer qua whole to a series of partial sensual counterparts, i.e. the keys which I press, the feel they produce, the screen I watch. This being said, this creates an issue if we want to say that the intentional relation is a single real object, paired with the thesis of asymmetry. This is because if the real me is inside the relation paired to its sensual related term, we would surely also need, at the side, the complementary couple of the real computer with its sensual me. But this seems awkward, since, what we get in that case is rather TWO relations whose unity is far from obvious. This would seem to imply that such cases imply two different emergent real relations obtain, which I do not think is what Graham advocates. If one constructs this bilateral distortion in a single emergent relation, then we have two unrelated halves within the same emergent object, in which case there seems nothing to justify their intrinsic unity.

For these reasons, I believe the thesis of asymmetry fails to capture the essential problem of withdrawal and relation: all an object ever encounters is an aspect of another, and by the same token, no object as a whole ever encounters another fully. Objects distort each other bilaterally.  When I type in my computer I surely am distorted by the computer and only part of me becomes invested in this relation; just as only part of the computer ever interacts with this part. The real totalities presumed as causing these sensual counterparts which encounter each other are never given to any of the terms. Likewise, unless all objects or some objects (cognitively endowed systems, i.e. humans) can epistemically access their total being in every occasion of relation by some form of privileged access, beings withdraw from themselves in every case, and not just from others. In any case, the crucial point is that in every relation, what is given to each of the terms is never the real object in its totality, but only a translation/distortion. This raises interesting questions about how self-relation works in OOO, but i'll leave that aside for now. With this in place, we can proceed to review the main qualms and quarrels with Graham's account.

II - The Qualms and Quarrels 
The crucial aspect about the second moment is that in my relating to my computer there is a) a third real object constituted as the real Daniel-PC unity, and b) that the real Daniel and the real PC withdraw from what is given to each term within this relation qua unified object. What this means is that what is given to a term in the relation is never strictly speaking another real object as such, but some aspect(s) of it which gets translated, and which becomes relative to the particular network proper to the objects as emergent, unified reality. I know that the jargon of ‘translation’ is really Levi’s, but it is useful here to indicate that what the Daniel-PC unity unifies is not the real objects of their hosts as such, but the sensual doubles to which they become reduced upon encounter.

   Thus when I type in my computer the keyboard relates to a reduced aspect of my whole (the fingers touching it) while most of me remains withdrawn from what this relation relates. By the same token, the keys themselves as registered by my fingers whilst typing only constitute a small part of the whole contrived circuitry, processes and parts which surely make up the computer as a whole. No matter how apparently exhaustive the relation may be between two objects, in their relating their substantive realities withdraw, and only sensual images appear to each of the terms. Distortions are given to distortions; aspects are given to aspects. Or to use Graham's phrase: real objects never touch each other directly. The function of the third real object is therefore to create a 'linked complex space' wherein specific aspects of each real object get translated by its counterpart, given as a new (also emergent) sensual object. It should also be noted that in Graham's dualism of sensual/real entities one may also distinguish between substances/parts. Therefore just as much as the real-PC withdraws from my mediation in relation to the sensual keys parts and sensed PC whole as I distort it, there (may be) real key-parts and a real PC whole that withdraws from my distortion. The same obviously applies to the computer's/keys distortion of my own substantive unity and parts. The withdrawal of entities thus applies in the case human relations as much in practice as it does in theorizing. Extending the Lacanian thesis of the non-sexual rapport, or the Heideggerean thesis of ontological 'forgetfulness', OOO advances a thesis about the non-rapport between any real objects.

Here is where I find that some very rudimentary questions can be raised, in spite of Levi's recent proclamations about how OOO has been circumspect in providing support for their claims. The first obvious observation concerns the status of real objects. Since every time I think about, type in, or generally relate to my computer, either in practice or theory, the real object in relation to me withdraws, how do I know that it is, in fact, one real PC that is withdrawing and not a multitude of PC-Parts, or of qualitatively different real objects altogether? More specifically, since every time I think/act towards my PC this will be towards a sensual distortion of the object, how can I ever know anything about the structure of real objects as such?

Graham’s answer to this crude objection is simply that we cannot know anything with certainty about the structure of particular real objects. In our first correspondence, as elsewhere, he claims that we nevertheless could bear standards 'for better or worse' at a loss for such certainty, and given the fallibility of knowledge. But this is dodging the issue; since given the irreductionist thesis advanced by OOO, no set of descriptions and no ontic register is said to gain privileged traction before the real.   Just like science keeps revising its stock of phenomena and forces over history, we must accept the overwhelming possibility that those entities and forces to which we endow unity in our relatings might turn out to be in reality totally different from the way they appear to us right now. It is important to notice, however, that this limitation in fact follows in principle from Graham’s thesis of withdrawal, since the real object can never coincide or be exhausted with its sensual double under relation. Thus I never know if there is in fact a ‘real PC’ underlying the sensual-PC given to me within the Daniel-PC unity, or if there rather is a variety of subsistent/independent "PC-parts" as proper ontological wholes, much like Quine’s famous butchered rabbits. No field of discourse or individuating description in fact escapes withdrawal; no activity or approach from one object to another can reduce the abyss that separates them. The 'real qualities' which determine the real object are forever precluded from knowledge, and they remain qualitatively foreclosed from whatever our grasp of sensual qualities may bring, i.e. which means that they couldn't ever coincide in the form of representational adequation. Here is where the theory of 'allure' through metaphor is supposed to do some work for Graham, insofar as it tilts the tension between objects given their irreducibility. But I won't address this here (**there's a comment below which very rapidly runs through this issue).

   The inevitable consequence of this position of agnosticism about the real seems to be that I have to admit that withdrawing from my distortion of the PC given to me as a sensual double there might be no real PC after all. Instead, there might be  anything akin one can  conjure or individuate in the imagination or outside of it. Thus what I take to be a PC might turn out to be a semblance produced by the Cartesian Evil Genius, Roger Rabbit smoking a blunt, a used napkin, Nixon, an Eastern Airlines ticket reservation booth from 1982 still awaiting passengers, a Chinese dumpling filled with a mixture of gun powder and paprika, eleven trillion bottles of expired baldness lotion, etc. Even if the 'real objects' and qualities remain withdrawn due to a qualitative difference from their sensual counterparts, nothing guarantees that they should be given one way rather than another to support the peculiar brand of sensual double. And by the same token, metaphysical description does no better in speaking of trees and beetles when attempting to allude to the real trees and beetles underlying our sensual distortions, than if it chose to speak about Roger Rabbit instead.

This is because even if there are merely sensual objects, as those entities conjured in our imaginings, with respect to the real no term/action/thought is ontologically closer to the real than any other, since the gap is qualitative and global rather than a matter of degree or local. Harman can thereby distinguish between purely sensual and real objects on the basis of ostentation, insofar as the latter anchors our acts of reference on some real correlate(s), but he cannot specify which of our singular terms target correspondent realities behind their sensual appearance, since they all remain qualitatively different from the unspecified real object(s) which withdraw, and which never touch.  Just like Graham states that he would need to 'be God' to know what is the underlying real object withdrawing from my construction of the sun as an astral phenomenon and that of the Incas as a light-weaving God, all the phenomena withdrawing from by our multiple descriptions and comportments remain spectral hosts, anonymous noumena lurking behind the veil of appearances. Without any epistemological criteria to gauge the adequacy of relational terms to resemble or adequately represent their real counterparts, all sensual objects stand in the same  epistemic footing. Of course, Graham knows very well that there are purely sensual objects in my imaginings, fictions and the like; but this doesn't need to occupy us now, albeit it raises its own stock of questions. To forecast a Fregean example: would we say that there is a 'real man' underlying Clark Kent and Superman qua identities attributed to them within our distorting and reductive culture? Or would we say that there are two disjoint realities there, a true schizophrenic split of the real rather than a mere sensual split? If we say that there is one reality behind these two sensual objects, then we must ask what provides us with the knowledge about this unity. And if Graham's answer is that we simply do not know what or how many realities underly each identity, we must accept that the world in-itself remains shrouded mystery, and that we lurk among, after all, mere phenomena, like Husserl anticipated.

Although this position is perfectly consistent with Graham's rejection of 'certainty' as something that can be reasonably obtained, it must be said that it displays a striking resemblance to the correlationist hypothesis according to which the real is thinkable but is unknowable. This is what I have called elsewhere the problem of virulent noumena, i.e. the potential proliferation of real entities as subsistent outside relation, given the lack of epistemological criteria to measure degrees of adequacy between thinking and being, concept and object. It is important to note that this "cognitive barrier" does not merely apply to human comportments or relations, but that any entity will be destined to perform its own proper brand of reduction/distortion, and thus ontological occlusion. Except, of course, the hypothetical God alluded to by Graham in his initial response.

But if real objects withdraw in such a radical way, then one must ask what solicits the thesis of their existence at all? That is, given that all I know are sensual objects, how do I know in fact that there are such things as withdrawing real substances, gaining  access to their general structures, and not the infamous Deleuzean flux of morphogenetic production in actualization, the formless apeiron from Anaximander, the Heideggerean 'being of beings' which is not a being, and such. Everytime I think about 'my PC' all I get is my sensual reduction of whatever realities withdraw from it; but the latter remain utterly intractable to thought. Graham’s answer here, as formulated in the OOO conference here at UCLA, was that confronted with the choice between accepting that there is a single, formless apeiron, or a multiplicity of objects, he advocates the latter. As construed, this seems to indicate that Graham thinks that it is a matter of ‘axiomatic decision’ or perhaps phenomenological clairvoyance that there exist many things rather than one. Thus, my impression is that he would resist a characterization of OOO as dogmatic on the grounds that he simply has chosen to affirm the subsistence of objects; not any more than Badiou’s endorsement of the axiom of the void set is dogmatic to found and launch set-theoretical ontology. Incidentally, I know Graham believes Badiou’s construal of consistency as an effect of the count already constitutes an anthropocentric reduction of objects to some form of bundle of qualities ala Hume, in Badiou’s ontology, and I think Graham critically misreads the latter by conflating consistency with human/subjective-constitution (the former is rather native to structure, which is perfectly objective). But let us obviate this for the time being.

However, the problem of virulent noumena outlined above becomes a further problem for Graham’s theory of relation qua an extension of phenomenological intentionality, outside the human eidetic-cohort. This is because it is not just real objects that remain veiled in mystery from my comportments with the world, but the relatings between these objects themselves. Just as I cannot know what real object(s) underlies the Daniel-PC unity, I also do not know what sensual doubles obtain when two real objects foreign to me meet. This is because every time I consider or interact with an object, this will be through the sensual construal of my own activity, and thus relative to my knowledge and the sensual correlates within the unities obtained by my relatings. How do we even know thus that other objects relate, and that they also individuate their objects by mediating them through sensual buffers? If all I ever know are the sensual objects of my  own comportments, and my own ways of translating objects, then it we are delivered right back to Husserl for whom the intentional object of experience was finally that endowed to with eidetic unity by consciousness. What epistemic warrant would thereby ever allow us to identify how objects relate outside this consciousness in a way that suddenly corresponds to the entities-processes we postulate through our singular terms?

   So when I speak of the beetle crawling up the tree, how can I ever presume to describe this relation without surreptitiously anthropomorphizing it in terms of the sensual objects given to me? This occluding violence of non-human relations follows since I cannot but help myself to the vocabulary correspondent to sensual reductions within my restricted phenomenological sphere. But then it becomes impossible to specify
what relates to what outside of me or indeed how it does so; which real objects and relations are adequate to my singular terms and which remain merely sensual fictions without a positive real objective anchor.  Let us here shift in example and imagine me walking back from class and seeing a lizard climb up a tree. This third completed diagram displays coarsely what I take to happen in this third moment of our construing non-human relations:

    Of course, strictly speaking, I couldn't even say I know there to be a 'real me' underlying my own sensual relations, let there be a story of privileged access here which I have missed. But the point is simply here that whatever I construe as a relation between the beetle and the tree can only take the form of a sensual correlate given for me, within a relation to myself, while their real counterparts and their substantive quality identity or numeric quantitative extension,  must remain occluded. Even though the diagram posits two anonymous terms (x,y), there could be in theory an infinity of such realities, of which we know nothing, within our relatings.

he presumed de-anthropomorphizing role OOO would play in speaking about non-human relations between objects seems thereby vitiated, given the inevitable gap between real objects and qualities on the one hand, and their sensual counterparts on the other. The entirety of the world as specified by our singular terms becomes swallowed by the realm of the sensual, since the real object which withdraws is necessarily qualitatively distinct from what gets transmitted in the relation. It is thus not just that we could be wrong (i.e. that knowledge is fallible), but that we cannot but be wrong given the qualitative gap that obtains due to withdrawal. Knowledge thus seems confined to the realm of the sensual, much like for Kant it remained a category of the phenomenal. The point, in a nutshell, is that even when speaking for relations for other entities, these can only be specified as sensual entities in relation to us. Thus the agnosticism about the real objects can be extended to an agnosticism about non-human relations more generally.

As a result, OOO seems forced to oscillate between 
correlationist agnosticism, insofar as it affirms the withdrawal of the real in every occasion of relation and thus of knowledge, and a descriptive metaphysics in which the problematic of access to the world as it is in-itself becomes obviated as we deploy our terms and descriptions to match general features of reality. The in-itself thus becomes thinkable but unknowable in its particularity, even if we know it to be there and how it is there generally. There seems to be thus something of a regression implicit here to the pre-critical endorsement of an in-itself separate from the for-us, without grounds to base how in spite of their independence we have access to its general features through metaphysical description. Only metaphysics can tell us anything about real objects, their general ontological features, while the reality of particulars seems proscribed from thought.

    Indeed something akin to this seems to underlie Graham’s Whiteheadean pragmatic deflation of Meillassoux’s circle of correlation, when he simply considers human-world relation as one kind among many. Graham has (or had) a story to tell here about the role ostentation plays in anchoring our sensings to real objects, in fixing the reference of the relating into a real entity. But the problem pertaining to OOO is ultimately unsalvageable through this glossing appeal to ostentation and Kripke. For the latter, it is physical knowledge of spacetime in the natural sciences which determines the endogenous structure of the objects of reference, and saves him from the ontological indeterminacy of Quine; while for OOO no such privileged locus or principle of individuation exists to bridge our knowledge to the real, concept and object. The latter inevitably withdraws from us, as from all descriptive registers, except in their general features known to us through object-oriented metaphysics. How we ever gain access to this general knowledge follows from the axiomatic assumption about the existence of real objects, along with the theory of vicarious causation and withdrawal.

The problem here is finally that in denying that access to the in-itself can ever obtain, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish in what way Graham’s OOO constitutes a realism differently than the correlationist who claims reality is out there but remains unknowable (as a limit concept, as it is for Kant; as the 'being of beings' as it is for Heidegger, or whatever else). That Graham is able to describe how real objects are endowed with a general structure and claim that they actually ‘are out there’ seems justified by way of an appeal to the real outside our mediation, in unexplained congruence with the terms of his metaphysical theory. But the question remains: how can we ever know that real things exist and relate, if all I ever grasp is the sensual counterpart of some unavoidably withdrawn reality? In any case, I hope this very crude presentation of my position makes some headway into clarifying why I remain skeptical about the status of OOO’s putative realism.