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. 🙂