The Ontic Principle, and A More Modest OOO?: A Review of Levi’s article in ‘The Speculative Turn’

Very exciting to finally have a hard copy of The Speculative Turn in my hands!

Anyway, I just finished reading Levi’s “The Ontic Principle,” on his suggestion that is might deal with some of my long standing objections to OOO as espoused by Levi and Graham. And I expressed some skepticism: everytime I’ve been told, ‘you just need to read x, THEN you’ll understand OOO,’ it has always turned out to be more of the same. So it was with some degree of skepticism, yet also curiosity, that I approached this article. Would it really be different?

And how can one get beyond the epistemological critiques of OOO? The response I’ve usually gotten is that OOO has dealt with and defused these epistemological critiques, yet I could find no evidence thereof. Levi then suggested I read this article.

And I must admit, some, though not all, of what I read was substantially new and different from what I’ve already experienced from OOO. But enough to suggest a potential shift.

Now, don’t get me wrong, in the second half of the essay, Levi makes statements about relational philosophy that I have all of the radical reductions of relationalism that I’ve come to expect from OOO. I don’t believe at all that relations completely reduce objects. In fact, I believe that objects and relations are two sides of the same. What’s more, I believe that both of these, to use the terms set by OOO, ‘withdraw.’ In fact, I believe that everything that exists withdraws, in its own way. I think that complexity and emergence are evidence of entities that withdraw more than others, but all entities can surprise us – whether objects or relations, or anything else, for that matter. I don’t see why privileging objects here makes sense. Maybe this makes me something other than a relationalist, but that’s perhaps there’s time later for that discussion . . .

But the first half of Levi’s essay is substantially different than what I’ve heard either he or Graham argue for OOO, on the internet or in print.

Levi starts off with the notion of speculation. And he proposes his model of thought as an experiment. This is very similar to what I’ve described, in relation to networkological thought, as a wager (hardly an original metaphor in the history of philosophy, but a useful one).

All of which means that what Levi proposes falls into the category of a lens on reality, one which, it is hoped, has what Levi calls ‘cash value.’ That is, we see a new description of reality, and then have to see what this description produces.

This means, of course, that any pretense to apodicticity, certainty, etc., goes out the window. And I appreciate this. Certainly the networkological approach views itself as a lens. It does not believe any philosophy can be proved. And here both of these find some commonality with the work of Francois Laruelle.

Levi’s project, then, is: let us see what happens when we put ontology first. And he’s got a persuasive argument as to why this is at least as good as epistemological approaches. That is, these approaches always presuppose the division between subject and object, or mind and matter, etc. And he’s right. While many have objected recently to what Quentin Meillassoux has called ‘correlationism,’ there are many approaches to getting beyond the human/non-human correlation. One way out is to assign correleation to everything, which, in modified form, is what the networkological project does (‘absolutize with a twist’ is how I’ve previously described it). And it seems to me that OOO does something similar, in that it believes that forms of access are as multiple as are objects.

I agree with Levi that what he calls ‘philosophies of access’ are no more grounded, ultimately, than an ontology-first type of approach. In fact, no philosophy can prove itself, all have presuppositions, and the notion that we must inquire FIRST into the conditions of knowledge, before all else, is, as Levi smartly argues, a presupposition, one which cannot ultimately ground itself.

And so the question becomes this: what can be seen when the world is examined with ontology as the primary lens? Now, I can’t say that I’ve heard OOO described in this manner, as purely a lens. I find it refreshing, because it means there are many things then that OOO is NOT claiming to be, do, or say. In many of my prior posts dealing with OOO, I haven’t objected to it as such. I simply object to it positioning itself as coherent, on its own terms, when it is not. If it can become coherent, a great lens on the world, I’d be perfectly happy. Particularly because I also claim no priority for the networkological approach than being an interesting lens that could lead to productive ways of looking at the world. A more modest OOO would be something very welcome!

Levi proceeds to describe the way in which difference forms the foundation of this new ontology. Difference is, what is needed is an analysis of this, without an attempt to predetermine difference as such (an instant hierarchy). I’m not sure that the transition from differences to objects is as fleshed out as I’d like. But I think the point here is solid. The matter to be investigated is the specific differences between particular things.

Once this position is established, we can then do a semi-phenomenological analysis of not only aspects of the material world – salt crystals, for example – but also cultural entities, such as the Coca-Cola Corporation, or Mickey Mouse, etc. That is, we can start doing philosophy on anything that has being, no matter where that being comes from, etc.

This means we can stop wondering whether or not there is something out there more real than objects, because there’s just a lot of objects.

I must say, I find a lot of this very convincing. If OOO doesn’t claim to be truer than anything else, many of the objections I have go away. OOO ceases to be incompossible with many other types of philosophy. And while Levi goes to great pain to argue why, say, the Lacanian signifier, or Marxist ‘economy in the last instance’ are the final level of what causes things to happen in the world, if we view these as lenses, and OOO as yet another lens, I see no reason why these are not all very interesting, potentially productive, and ultimately layerable and compossible ways of looking at the world.

I like my philosophies compossible. I think the more lenses, the more ways of looking at the world. At some points, a Marxist lens is useful, at others, a Lacanian one. What I dislike is the exclusivity. Now, of course, each of us has a deeper, if often fuzzy, most fundamental lens. And perhaps for me, this is the networkological one.

But I think, without question, that the lens provided by OOO is very interesting and potentially very productive. That’s why I continue to be fascinated by it.

However, once your philosophy decides that it is ‘just a lens,’ it puts a lot up for grabs. Why, for example, does OOO as a lens include one principle over another? Should we say ‘just because’? Is there a criterion, or criteria, which orders the addition of principles in Levi’s model? I’m not sure. It does seem that the principles he outlines come in semi-nested form, with the later ones being corrllaries of those which preceded them. But I don’t see here a more general structure.

I also find the reduction of relationalism to a particular caricature thereof disturbing, and one which seems not to accord with OOO’s own attempt to keep all objects open. I think the notion of complexity/emergence shows how objects and relations can surprise us.

I think by becoming much more modest in what it claims, OOO has a lot to gain. Most of my complaints with OOO have not been in relation to what OOO claims, but how it speaks. That is, by saying, ‘I am going to investigate the ontology of the Coca-Cola Corporation,’ I have always objected, well, ok, but there is only a Coca-Cola corporation for those who encounter it. And since electrons can’t know the Coca-Cola corporation (they’d need to understand human language, know what Coca-Cola is, what a corporation is, etc.), that we’d need to say something like “the ontology of what linguistically competent humans call ‘the Coca-Cola corporation.’

But with a few discalimers, stated or implied out of convenience of not having to be continually reiterated, I’d have no problems here. If epistemological questions are simply suspended, by fiat, and ontology put first, as nothing more than a lens, then we can inquire about the being of the Coca-Cola corporation, and simply background questions of access, knowledge, etc. This is not to say these questions don’t exist, and may not be valid from within philosophical systems with different commitments. But rather, OOO has other priorities. It’s worldview is not more right or true than others, but simply a worldview. This worldview produces ways of thinking of the world, and ways of acting in relation to the world, and these effects serve as ways to evaluate this philosophy.

What then separates philosophy from art, or fiction? Not much. But when philosophy is this modest, there’s no need for a firm distinction. Then again, I think that most strong philosophical worldviews, to be strong, need to articulate reasons why they do what they do. This provides consistency, based on what the worldview as such considers worthwhile. Fiction and religion and art can be seen as many sides of the production of cultural lenses, and the genre of philosophy as generally that form which gives reasons. The degree of commonality of a given philosophy with others is then the degree to which its reasons and forms of reasoning overlap. These remain, however, ultimately fuzzy distinctions.

I think my issue with OOO has always been the fact that it seems to claim much more than this. But if this is all OOO claims as its grounding and exclusivity, then perhaps there’s much less to be worried about.

Now only if it can be admitted that it’s possible for relations as well as objects to achieve some of what OOO sets out to do, we’d have even more common ground here. I agree, there is the danger of a certain type of relationalism to preclude otherness, just as certain types of theories of objects do the same. I agree with OOO that the withdrawal they argue is at the heart of objects is an essential component of how we need to relate to the world today. I’m just not convinced that withdrawal is exclusively the property of objects, or that only an object oriented ontology can theorize withdrawal. I feel in fact that a relational philosophy that theorizes complexity and emergence can also do the same, if differently.

I’m impressed with this essay, because in particular of its modesty. I also find it’s argument against the priority of the epistemological approach to be really smart and useful. The networkological perspective does not prioritize ontology, epistemology, or ethics, but uses each to ground the other. Deconstructing the priority of the epistemological approach, and its implicit foregrounding of human sorts of access, is I think a very important move.

So, overall, a very pleasant experience. 🙂


~ by chris on January 22, 2011.

8 Responses to “The Ontic Principle, and A More Modest OOO?: A Review of Levi’s article in ‘The Speculative Turn’”

  1. This is how I interpret what you have written above: “as long as the philosophy doesn’t pretend to talk about reality, therefore excluding some possibilities while accepting others, then I’m satisfied. As long as you don’t think you are really talking about existence in-itself, then I am okay with that, because nothing is contradicting my own, or any other possible, position. As long as you don’t pretend to have any arguments for why objects are real, but just assume this is an arbitrary lens that could be replaced by others of equal validity, then I have no problem with that. As long as you don’t try to talk about what the Coca-Cola corporation might be in-itself, which doesn’t even exist, then I’m okay with that. Basically, as long as you accept the terms of my epistemology and ontology, on my own grounds and my own perspective, because, as I’ve written so many times, there is only perspective and encounter and experience, there is no possible way to even talk about in-itself, then I’m perfectly pleased and satisfied. Besides, objects and relations aren’t really different, they are only lenses to look at reality, no better than any other lens, because all that counts in philosophy is perspective, not reality. Unless you claim to have a perspective on reality, which is impossible. Nothing is different or better than anything else and everything is the best at everything.”

    Hopeless relativism, in other words.

  2. Now, that’s incredibly reductive. I didn’t say that none were better than any others. I said that none were more ‘true’ than any others. That said, there may be many potential criteria of value whereby to adjudicate why one particular lens is more useful, interesting, or appropriate to particular situations, for particular aims, etc. I’m pretty Nietzchian in this respect. Don’t forget, for him, the ‘Will to Truth’ is simply a form of a will to cruelty, a form of resentiment. ‘Why not rather untruth?’, he famously asks, as he proceeds to transvalue all values. Now of course, this does not mean we should give up all science, all relation to a world wider than value. But it does mean that the question becomes which fictions, in dialogue with our encounters with the world, are most productive for that which we value? Which creates another circle: what do we value, and why? The result is a set of circles, whose spiraled intertwining, if done ‘well’ (I’d argue), aren’t dialectical, but post-dialectical.
    It’s a lot more complex than simply ‘it’s all perspective’, and simple relativism. Which fictions, and why, and how do they carve the Real, and to what ends, and how do we justify this with other carvings of the Real?

    So, if you’d like to know if I believe in reality, no, I don’t, and any form of truth which aims to fealty to this is outdated. The Real, however, is a different matter.

  3. I was wondering if you’ve had a look at Brassier’s essay in the Spec. Turn volume. My sense is that it pretty much destroys Harman’s version of SR, and I’m not convinced that Bryant’s makes it out intact either.

    It might have some interesting ramifications for your own project.

    • I’ve read several of the articles in ‘Speculative Turn’ and really liked them, haven’t actually read Brassier’s, but I’ll check it out. I must say, I have no desire to destroy anything, I rather like OOO in many senses, and feel it has a lot to offer. The issue I have is it seems to me that some of its claims don’t hang together with others, and I find myself scratching my head trying to get them to come together, wondering if the issue is with me, or with the models themselves. And that’s the question, isn’t it?

  4. I hear what you’re saying. We’re probably coming from different positions. My biggest problem with OOO/P is what I see as its attempts to wish away epistemological concerns. I’ve never heard a good reason for how it is that Harman et al know that the world is made up of discrete objects. The times I’ve heard him pressed on this, he tends to retreat to a very unsatisfying “common sense” position. I just heard his lectures from the conference in Zagreb (I realize that I’m way behind the times on this one), and he gets hammered by questions about judgment, access, etc. At least at that conference, he had no response (and basically had to be rescued by the moderator). Incidentally, I prefer the exchanges I’ve heard him and Bryant get into at conferences since they can’t just block/filter the comments, call the commenters “trolls,” insist that they’ve already dealt with the problem, etc., etc.

    I like the Brassier piece in part because it says incredibly clearly what a lot of folks seem to be thinking. Additionally, it does a great job of distinguishing correlationism, philosophies of access, epistemology, conceptual idealism, etc., which the object-oriented folks seem all too anxious to collapse into one another. Brassier’s criticisms can be a little vicious — I can’t imagine that he and Harman are still talking — but the positions are always cogent.

    I’ve had a short look at LB’s piece and wasn’t too impressed. Based on your characterization, I’ll give it a closer look (though I have to admit, I’m not predisposed to his project).

  5. I haven’t seen this Zagreb talk you mention, I’m surprised to find out there are others who have concerns as well. I agree, there’s this odd way in which on the internet, critics can just be brushed aside. I feel like this has happened to me and the points I’ve been raising for, oh, over a year!

    I agree, I don’t think the epistemological issues have been dealt with by OOO. It’s not that I think OOO is unworkable, I think it has some really interesting things to offer. But I think it has to mutate to deal with these concerns people are raising. I’ve been having this dialogue with Graham/Levi on this stuff for nearly a year now, and it’s been a very odd experience, trying to get them to see that these issues will keep popping up unless 1) they deal with these criticisms or, 2) if they already have somehow, explain how, where, etc. There’s a lot of dodging and avoiding going on, at least from what I can tell. They keep saying it’s me, but I’m really not convinced. Of course, how would one know if it’s you or them, or some odd mixture or neither, especially in a self-selecting crowd like philosophy blogging?

  6. For me it comes down to a couple things:

    1. I don’t believe in:
    – the thing which does not move nor
    – the nothing which does move

    2. Wherever there is a variable there is a principle governing it because
    – reality is objects and processes interacting
    – the variety of objects and process exceeds the number of unique objects and processes
    – therefore reality is extremely recursive
    – and so reality is the smallest set of principles that satisfy themselves
    – otherwise the recursive process has no termination / ground floor and cannot backpropagate to produce a result

    the idea that reality is constant on its surface is false
    the idea that objects are somehow separate entities which collide is also a problem because only an object which can terminate its natural process can produce a measurable result

    what i’m getting at is a universe that participates in infinite recursion cannot produce any result to be said that it participates in the first place.

    i do agree that at the bottom of the reference pile things which we consider fundamental give up the ghost.

  7. AV: I’m afraid that I don’t follow most of what you’re saying.

    If anyone’s interested in the Zagreb talks, here’s a link:

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