Semiotic Objectology? Or, how my objections to OOO vanished overnight, Part II
I must say, over the last few months, in which I’ve intentionally kept myself from writing anything related to OOO, part of me was like, ‘Well, I totally see why people like object-oriented ‘theory/thought‘. It allows philosophy to talk about objects in a ways that are way more specific than ever before. But can it be more than theory, a philosophy, if it can’t answer some very basic questions, questions that no-one seems to want to recognize, let alone answer?”
[For what its worth, in literary studies, which is where I'm originally from, the whole trend to 'cultural studies' type scholarship, of which I'm a big fan, has a lot in common with object-oriented thought. Things like the history of the fork (Norbert Elias' pathbreaking work from the mid-1930's!), or Stuart Hall's analysis of the Sony Walkman. How soap reconfigured ideas on race (Anne McClintock), or Walter Benjamin's quirky archaeology of things like unpacking your library. But such wondrous gifts a rigorous ontology does not make.]
So I kept feeling, well, am I the only one that can see that the metaphorical ‘emperor’ hasn’t any clothes? Why don’t the problems I’m encountering seem to bother most folks, other than Steve (and not as much), Adrian (who also tired of the online debates), and myself? Either way, I finally just let it go. At some point, if the issues I was raising were right, they’d eventually come back, and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t. It was that simple. Still, curiosity remained.
The odd thing, of course, is that I’ve always felt that the relationalism that folks like Adrian, Steve, and myself seem to be working on has quite a lot in common with many aspects of what is described in OOO. Like coming at a similar goal from two different ends. That’s what’s been so frustrating then of these discussions, not to mention their sometime vehemence (Levi, damn!). But now to the details.
The issues . . .
First it may make sense to summarize VERY quickly the objections I have posed to OOO, and still feel have not been answered. None of these, are in fact, my own, but rather, I’ve simply amplified and fleshed them out from what Adrian originally formulated, and which spurred my own thoughts on these issues.
In my attempts to explicate, expand upon, and streamline these, I’ve generally called them things like 1) genesis, 2) decomposition, 3) change, 4) naming. That is, what determines the genesis of an object, when it differentiates from what comes before it? When can we say an object is truly done with and gone? At what point can objects be said to transform into something different than what they were before? [And I'm not convinced the eidos/essence distinction that Graham has proposed solves this so much as doubles this question into real and sensual sides.] And where does one object begin, and another end?
All of these issues imply the need for a subject. Which is why I’ve continually posed questions along the lines of ‘who gets to decide’ these things? Because it has been my sense that without a real answer to these questions, subjectivity is imported through the backdoor.
So I listened today. And I heard some very interesting words pop up between the cracks. In their presentation of their roots in Latour, both Levi and Graham mentioned something I hadn’t heard connected to OOO before. Namely, that for Latour, semiotic matters may be agents.
Of course, anyone who knows Latour’s work realizes that he thinks discourse and material entities are both potentially agental. Graham also mentioned the possible relations to Kripke, and his notion of rigid designators, which ultimately fails, but raises some interesting issues along the way.
But it had never occurred to me that semiotic ‘particles,’ so to speak, could be objects, along with all this implied. Of course, this was there in Latour all along. But in all our hard fought debates of the last year, it never came up, likely because OOO, and much of SR, is an attempt to rework our relation to the ‘linguistic turn.’ But language can’t be the ‘return of the repressed,’ so to speak, it needs to be addressed, like it or not.
But if discourse could be agential in Latour, why couldn’t semiotic matters be objects in OOO? Wouldn’t this answer my concerns? And I said to myself – now why didn’t they just say this months and months ago?! Or, why didn’t I see it earlier?! I mean, it works in Latour, its a simple step from there to OOO . . .
And this all makes my objections to OOO fall aside.
SR and the Linguistic Turn: On Subjectivity and Naming
It hits me that so much of SR, in all forms, has come about as an attempt to get beyond the strictures, not so much even of correlationism, but of the ‘linguistic turn’ that characterized the post-structuralist, post-68’s philosophies of the late twentieth century (Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, etc.).
In many senses, the rejection of the linguistic turn is SR’s founding gesture. Deleuze is the mediator between post-structuralism and SR in this sense. Dealing with language therefore remains paramount if SR is to truly move beyond its Oedipal origins.
All the problems I’ve always had with OOO comes down to this feeling that subjectivity has been snuck in the back door. How do we know that when we speak of the inimitable ‘cane toad’ that it is the same as the cane toad? The quotes are the issue. For in fact, the quotes are what link and differentiate the WORD ‘cane toad’ from the ostensible object cane toad. And here comes Adrian’s infamous questions: at what point does it become a cane toad, cease to be a cane toad, what are the necessary and/or sufficient conditions of it no longer being a cane toad, etc.? Who gets to decide when its really a ‘cane toad’?
But if we consider that SEMIOTIC MATTERS CAN ALSO BE OBJECTS, well, this changes things a bit. I’ve never heard the OOO folks talk this way. Though I must admit, some of Tim Morton’s talk today seemed to be quite on this trajectory. The idea of rhetorics of things, well, I think that’s pretty brilliant. I mean, if things have rhetoric, that actually undoes the linguistic turn by hyperbolizing it. Quit nice, if you ask me . . .
Anyway. Let’s me sure of precisely what we mean when we say semiotics matters. I mean signs. Signs composed in their material (graphemes, phonemes) and their ideational parts. But how can/does OOO speak of these things? Certainly, the new idea of a ‘hyper-object’ – a radically distributed object, is able to speak of things like the grapheme /p/, which includes all the /p/’s used in various fonts, in various books, on the internets, etc. These are also linked in their way to all the /puh/ sounds uttered by those who read /p/ graphemes, say words that are described by /p/ graphemes, etc.
But what of ideas? And here I believe we need a very particular argument to make this all work: ideas are PHYSICAL things. That is, they exist as neural patterns within brains. Ideas are as physical as phonemes and graphemes. We don’t need to violate the flatness of the ontology here. Phonemes in books are different from the neural patterns which occur when we hear a phoneme in the world, or which cause us to utter a phoneme, but they are all linked, if differentially, when we say ‘parrot.’
What is the result? When we say ‘cane toad’, we are linking a set of graphemes, phonemes, and the neural patterns (of cane toads, the graphemes and phonemes involved, various associations to all of these) formed in linguistic subjects who write/talk/think of ‘cane toads’, to all the cane toads (without scare quotes) out there in the universe. We have a dynamic, fuzzy, radically disjunct and mutating hyperobject.
At what point do cane toads cease being ‘cane toads’? When ‘cane toads’ delinks from cane toads. Now, human beings are the ones who originated the term ‘cane toad’ within language. But if all the humans were to suddenly vanish, all our dictionaries and other artifacts would remain. Many of which will link cane toads to ‘cane toads.’ The linkage will be ‘less real’, as Latour would say, but it would still exist.
Does this mean that ‘cane toads’ are cane toads? I would say this is, following Latour, a matter of degree.
But with this linkage between OOO and semiotics, all my personal objections to OOO vanish into thin air.
None of which means that I think there aren’t some fuzzy issues here. For example, if its now easy to say when a cane toad becomes a ‘cane toad’ (namely, when the semiotic matters involved in putting those words together are linked up to cane toads in the world), but at what point does a cane toad become a cane toad?
Well, that’s the hard part. Before someone links the semiotic matters at work with ‘cane toads’ to actual cane toads, cane toads remain ‘x’s, in a sense. That is, there are certainly objects involved (both real and sensual), and these manifest to other objects in a wide variety of ways. But they are only able to be called ‘cane toads’ when they link to entities which do so (ie: humans, dictionaries, wikipedia, etc.). None of which is to say they wouldn’t manifest to non-verbal humans as green, but simply not as ‘green’ . . .
Is there a difference between ‘green’ and green, ‘cane toad’ and cane toad? I think all the difference in the world, and yet, from the right perspective, none at all. On the one hand, semiotic matters link to others in networks, and as so many (post)structuralists have shown so well, no sign makes sense outside the continually reworked networked flow of signs to which it connected. Once we use signs, any single sign indirectly drags in networks of others, and is only sensible in relation to that network. From there, we need to understand the ways in which the linkages made by semiotic matters influence how we interact with non-semiotic matters. This is why there’s no way to say for certain whether or not pre-verbal humans actually interacted with cane toads (though we know for certain they didn’t interact with ‘cane toads’!) But we know they interacted with something LIKE the cane toads which link up to our sign ‘cane toad.’
There are other issues here. Just because the sign ‘cane toad’ is linked up to some object doesn’t mean that object is correctly attributed. Or that each cane toad isn’t a singular entity whose difference is erased by being linked with other SIMILAR entities called ‘cane toads.’ I go with Wittgenstein here – what we often call ‘the same’ in our experience is really a set of family resemblances. In fact, things humans say are exactly the same are ALWAYS family resemblances of differing degrees of fuzziness.
And so the sign ‘cane toad’ is in fact a hyper-object, a radically distributed, fuzzy, dynamic semiotic grouping of similar sounds and printings of letters and ideas (which are themselves physical patterns of neurons activated with these sounds and letters in physical brains), which is then fuzzily, distributively, and dynamically linked to a set of fuzzy, distributed, and dynamic set of matters which constitute cane toads.
For in fact, every time we say ‘cane toad’ we say it differently, just as every time we print it, just as every cane toad in the world is different from every other and from itself at every given moment. Each of these are different objects, and while we may link them into larger objects we call ‘cane toad’ and cane toad, and which we may then link together when we say or write ‘cane toad’ while intending a cane toad, the parts and wholes are related yet distinct.
But this is an object-oriented philosophy I can get behind. Here we see fuzzy networks of objects, merelogically encasing, overlapping, intertwining, enmeshing, separating and inmixing, all on the same level. And yet, the cores of everything radically withdraws. I’ve always agreed on this aspect of OOO. And like OOO, I believe that while all entities withdraw to some extent, some have a tendency to withdraw in very particularly special ways, and that these very special ways are fundamentally related to what we call life and thought, whether present in animals or humans or otherwise.
There are other minor terminological issues I have with OOO: in particular, I think that the framing of the relations/terms debate makes it seems like we are disagreeing on many things we are not. Ultimately, I think these are minor issues, because as Steve has argued many times, Whitehead provides a path to bridge this gap. And I’ve always said that I think entities withdraw. I think we just use terms a bit differently on these issues, but that ultimately we believe in rather similar things in regard to how entities withdraw, and what that means. I’ll explain this in much greater detail in my own work shortly.
But the big issues are all gone. And the little ones are minor, the differences between fellow-travellers.
So, well, didn’t see that coming! Not to say I’m totally surprised. Is this all slightly embarrassing? Does it say something about the much ballyhooed potential for blogerly confusion in this new medium?
Who knows. Either way, methinks a few drinks are in order for all.