Reply to the recent OOO fracas
1. On tone: Now, it seems the only thing that the OOO folks heard from my most recent post was the word ‘cult’, perhaps also ‘mysticism.’ Now, I don’t think that to say this about another group’s dynamics is inherently an evil thing. But I do think when the language of ‘conversion’ and ‘seeing the light’ is used so often, that perhaps it stops being just silly metaphorical fun.
The purpose of my last post was to see if I could prompt a shift in mode of explanation. Obviously that didn’t work. And now I’m ‘he that shall not be named.’ Well, I’ve been that before. But the fact that civil critique (and yes, everything I said was civil, go back and read it) is taken as evil, well, it says something. Notice what I don’t do is say things like a recent OOO person said here: “Especially if the person making this claim can’t finish a single piece of work of their own after well over a decade of trying.” This isn’t nice.
Here’s my take. And I know I’m not the only one to feel this way, for whatever that’s worth:
I think there’s an echo chamber right now in regard to OOO. OOO has gotten very good at preaching to the choir. And the choir grows. But in order to grow further, OOO will have to learn to speak to critics in terms they will acknowledge as actual engagement. Not talking at, but talking with. Not only on terms it sets, but terms it negotiates. That it has yet to do.
2. On answering questions: I don’t think any philosophy is ever completely satisfied that another answers its questions. This is because they frame the world differently, and hence, shift the terrain on which questions are asked. But I do think that in the dialogue that goes on between philosophies, there is a difference in dismissing the entire ground another philosophy stands upon, and engaging that philosophy on its own turf in order to show its weaknesses (and all turfs have them), and then show why the new turf is potentially more productive for describing new types of worlds. I think that OOO has done the former in regard to relationalism, rather than the later. That’s all I’m saying.
3. On Arguing: None of the arguments made by me and Adrian or other processural critics of OOO are rocket science. They are actually, pretty standard processural fare. And so, the hysterics that often result on the other side, as well as the attacks when we make them, are kinda amazing to watch. Because nothing Adrian and I or Gary or processuralist critics past and future are saying, at least in our critique of OOO, is all that strange or unusual. This is not an appeal to authority, it’s an appeal to the fact that if OOO hasn’t answered our concerns, it then hasn’t answered that of a whole legion of folks out there. If OOO wants to convince this legion, it has to do a better job in dealing with processuralist concerns, otherwise, they will keep popping up, not from us (we’ll get tired of this sooner or later), but from others who feel similarly. Basically, we’re just the messengers. Process-oriented stuff has been here nearly a hundred years. That doesn’t make it right, but it does mean it’s really fleshed out and developed.
As the new kid on the block, OOO is going to hit the same critiques again and a again if it doesn’t deal with them well. Better sooner rather than later.
But the fact that a whole string of prior such messengers essentially got yelled at till they went silent in regard to OOO is telling of the very group dynamic that worries me.
I’m not saying that OOO hasn’t provided answers. Its that these answers are always the same answers, that are inadequate in the same ways. What they fail to do is show how, from the axioms of OOO, the criticism (outlined again below), can be refuted. Perhaps OOO has no answer to these criticisms, or refuses to acknowledge them as valid. Levi’s response below indicates a repetition of the very arguments I’ve heard a million times before, and which hit me as inadequate the same way as before.
3. The crux of the disagreement: No matter how much yelling and screaming and protestations on how we’ve already written and said so much, there is a serious philosophical disagreement here. I don’t think proccesurralists will necessarily agree with an OOO answer, but I think we should be at least able to recognize the answer as an answer rather than a swerve.
I think Levi sums it up nicely here-
However, this gets to something that came up in an email discussion earlier this evening. My interlocutor wrote:
“The blue mug on the table. Does it exist ‘in its own’, even if I’m not here? To an electron, or does it show up to it electronly, and hence, not as a blue mug? In which case, there is no blue mug for the electron, and hence, we can only say ‘what appears to me as a blue mug’, without there being any ‘real’ object to anchor it. This is the core of the dispute, I think.”
Notice the nature of the questions this person asks: “does it exist even if I’m not here?” “does it exist to an electron, even if the electron passes right through it?” What’s the problem? The problem is that the person is using the verb “exist” in the wrong way. The blue mug exists in its own right. It has nothing to do with whether or not we’re here, nor does it have anything to do with whether or not the electron passes right through it. The problem with this usage is that it is thinking the verb “to exist” relationally as “exists to“. But “existence” is not a relational verb of this sort. “Exists” is a property of the entity that exists, not a relation between another entity and the entity. If you begin with this relational perspective your thinking will be muddled on these issues from the very start.
I agree that ‘to exist’ is not a relational verb, of the sort ‘exist to.’ I agree that this tries to turn ontology into epistemology, and in a way that does no justice to ontology.
Where I differ is that while I think we can say that something exists in the vicinity of the blue mug, we shouldn’t say ‘the blue mug exists,’ at least not without a ton of qualifiers. For as soon as we say the blue mug exists, and call it the blue mug, we have qualified this existence with blueness, mugness, even a location in space and time, no matter how extended or fuzzy. And as soon as we do this, we move beyond ontology (sheer being, no?), and into the realm of qualities like blueness, mugness, etc. Now, aren’t these epistemological issues? There’s no denying the wavelengths emited by photons that bounce off the mug are in what humans call the blue spectrum. But this does not make the mug ‘blue’ to anyone but a human – and a human using the English language, for that matter.
Now, if you said ‘that being, which this human describes as blue’, I’ve got no issue. But as soon as you say the EXISTENCE of the blue mug, well, the blue mug AS SUCH does not exist anywhere except for those who have categories like blueness and mugness. Surely there’s SOMETHING there. But to call it a blue mug, and to talk about the ontology of the blue mug, AS blue mug, well, unless you are talking about the ontology of the IDEA of the blue mug, rather than the blue mug as such, well, then you’re taking over epistemology in the name of ontology, or, as I’ve said before, importing human categories into the realm of ontology.
5. More on tone: There is nothing in my argument here that is 1) out there, 2) not shared by a whole bunch of like-minded processuralists, and 3) rude. Nor is it beyond the pale to say that I think the arguments the OOO folks have made in reply to the processuralist critiques don’t answer the questions, even obliquely. They’re not in the ballpark of answering them, so to speak. That’s part of what keeps fascinating me about OOO.
6. An Echo Chamber: Can I prove that OOO hasn’t answered the questions being posed to it? No. But I think a whole bunch of processuralists feel this way. And they tire getting yelled at as each individually being trollish each time they say it, so they eventually go away. The result is an OOO echo chamber, in which only the folks that like what OOO has to say stick around. And it gives an inflated sense of the degree to which people consider the arguments being made valid.
To what degree should philosophers ever care the extent to which others think their arguments are vaild? A tricky question. But I personally think the point of philosophy is to speak to the needs of the times, rather than appeal to eternal truths (of which I’m pretty skeptical, without a TON of disclaimers).
7. Taking a Break from OOO: Last time I took a break from OOO, I spent six months without mentioning anything OOO on my blog. But it continues to fascinate. Partially because it DOES have many new and exciting things to bring to the table. Partly though because it seems to grow, and yet no-one seems to address the processuralist critique. Which makes me curious as to why that is. I remain as fascinated by the odd development of the movement as the philosophical content. Luckily, I don’t seem to take things as personally as the others do, and most of this leaves me unpissed. Always surprised at the vehemence of it all, but again, I’m not offended, more amazed.
8. PS – I do agree with Levi on one essential point he made in the last post of his. There’s absolutely no reason why a process account of what is is better than an object oriented one for describing change on an ontological level. Saying that fluids congeal into objects, or that objects give rise to other objects between them by splitting and conjoining and nesting in various ways, these are two different ways of saying the same thing, like object-wave duality in particle physics. Just sayin.’ While I like the process-fluidy metaphors better, I see this aspect of things as a matter of taste. I do think an object-oriented philosophy is possible. I just don’t think it can ignore the epistemological issues raised above and still work. If it takes into account things like perspective and semiotics, and the way these relate to epistemology, great. That’s why I no longer think an OOO as such can’t work, just I think the OOO currently being proposed needs to deal with these issues to be successful on its own terms.