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In metaphysics, object-oriented ontology (OOO) is a 21st-century Heidegger-influenced school of thought that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects. This is in contrast to what it calls the "anthropocentrism" of Kant's Copernican Revolution, as accepted by most other current metaphysics, in which phenomenal objects are said to conform to the mind of the subject and, in turn, become products of human cognition. Object-oriented ontology maintains that objects exist independently (as Kantian noumena) of human perception and are not ontologically exhausted by their relations with humans or other objects. For object-oriented ontologists, all relations, including those between nonhumans, distort their related objects in the same basic manner as human consciousness and exist on an equal footing with one another.
Object-oriented ontology is often viewed as a subset of speculative realism, a contemporary school of thought that criticizes the post-Kantian reduction of philosophical enquiry to a correlation between thought and being, such that the reality of anything outside of this correlation is unknowable. Object-oriented ontology predates speculative realism, however, and makes distinct claims about the nature and equality of object relations to which not all speculative realists agree. The term "object-oriented philosophy" was coined by Graham Harman, the movement's founder, in his 1999 doctoral dissertation "Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects". In 2009, Levi Bryant rephrased Harman's original designation as "object-oriented ontology", giving the movement its current name.
Founding of the movement
The term "object-oriented philosophy” was used by speculative philosopher Graham Harman in his 1999 doctoral dissertation "Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects" (later revised and published as Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects). For Harman, Heideggerian Zuhandenheit, or readiness-to-hand, refers to the withdrawal of objects from human perception into a reality that cannot be manifested by practical or theoretical action. Furthering this idea, Harman contends that when objects withdraw in this way, they distance themselves from other objects, as well as humans. Resisting pragmatic interpretations of Heidegger's thought, then, Harman is able to propose an object-oriented account of metaphysical substances. Following the publication of Harman's early work, several scholars from varying fields employing object-oriented principles in their own work. Levi Bryant began what he describes as "a very intense philosophical email exchange" with Harman, over the course of which Bryant became convinced of the credibility of object-oriented thought. Bryant subsequently used the term "object-oriented ontology" in 2009 to distinguish those ontologies committed to an account of being composed of discrete beings from Harman's object-oriented philosophy, in order to mark a difference between object-oriented philosophy (OOP) and object-oriented ontology (OOO).
While object-oriented philosophers reach different conclusions, they share common precepts, including a critique of anthropocentrism and correlationism and a rejection of "preservation of finitude", "withdrawal", and philosophies that undermine or "overmine" objects.
Rejection of anthropocentrism
Anthropocentrism is the privileging of humans as "subjects" over and against nonhuman beings as "objects". The widespread tendency frequently limits attributes such as mind, autonomy, moral agency, reason, and the like to humans, while contrasting all other beings as variations of "object", or things obeying deterministic laws, impulses, stimuli, instincts, and so on. Beginning with Kant's epistemology, modern philosophers began articulating a transcendent anthropocentrism, whereby the Kantian argument that objects are unknowable outside of the imposed, distorting categories of the human mind in turn shores up discourses wherein objects frequently become effectively reduced to mere products of human cognition. In contrast to Kant's view, object-oriented philosophers maintain that objects exist independently of human perception, and that nonhuman object relations distort their related objects in the same fundamental manner as human consciousness. Thus, all object relations, human and nonhuman, are said to exist on equal ontological footing with one another.
Critique of correlationism
Related to 'anthropocentrism', object-oriented thinkers reject correlationism, which the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux defines as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other". Because object-oriented ontology is the realist philosophy, it stands in contradistinction to the anti-realist trajectory of correlationism, which restricts philosophical understanding to the correlation of being with thought by disavowing any reality external to this correlation as inaccessible, and, in this way, fails to escape the ontological reification of human experience.
Rejection of undermining and "overmining"
Object-oriented thought holds that there are two principal strategies for devaluing the philosophical import of objects. First, one can undermine objects by claiming that they are an effect or manifestation of a deeper, underlying substance or force. Second, one can "overmine" objects by either an idealism which holds that there is nothing beneath what appears in the mind or, as in social constructionism, by positing no independent reality outside of language, discourse or power. Object-oriented philosophy rejects both undermining and "overmining".
Preservation of finitude
Unlike other speculative realisms, object-oriented ontology maintains the concept of finitude, whereby relation to an object cannot be translated into direct and complete knowledge of an object. Since all object relations distort their related objects, every relation is said to be an act of translation, with the caveat that no object can perfectly translate another object into its own nomenclature. Object-oriented ontology does not restrict finitude to humanity, however, but extends it to all objects as an inherent limitation of relationality.
Object-oriented ontology holds that objects are independent not only of other objects, but also from the qualities they animate at any specific spatiotemporal location. Accordingly, objects cannot be exhausted by their relations with humans or other objects in theory or practice, meaning that the reality of objects is always present-at-hand. The retention by an object of a reality in excess of any relation is known as withdrawal.
Metaphysics of Graham Harman
In Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, Graham Harman interprets the tool-analysis contained in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time as inaugurating an ontology of objects themselves, rather than the valorization of practical action or networks of signification. According to Harman, Heideggerian Zuhandenheit, or readiness-to-hand, indicates the withdrawal of objects from both practical and theoretical action, such that objectal[clarification needed] reality cannot be exhausted by either practical usage or theoretical investigation. Harman further contends that objects withdraw not just from human interaction, but also from other objects. He maintains:
If the human perception of a house or a tree is forever haunted by some hidden surplus in the things that never becomes present, the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops. Even inanimate things only unlock each other's realities to a minimal extent, reducing one another to caricatures...even if rocks are not sentient creatures, they never encounter one another in their deepest being, but only as present-at-hand; it is only Heidegger's confusion of two distinct senses of the as-structure that prevents this strange result from being accepted.
From this, Harman concludes that the primary site of ontological investigation is objects and relations, instead of the post-Kantian emphasis on the human-world correlate. Moreover, this holds true for all entities, be they human, nonhuman, natural, or artificial, leading to the downplayment of dasein as an ontological priority. In its place, Harman proposes a concept of substances that are irreducible to both material particles and human perception, and "exceed every relation into which they might enter".
Coupling Heidegger's tool-analysis with the phenomenological insights of Edmund Husserl, Harman introduces two types of objects: real objects and sensual objects. Real objects are objects that withdraw from all experience, whereas sensual objects are those that exist only in experience. Additionally, Harman suggests two kinds of qualities: sensual qualities, or those found in experience, and real qualities, which are accessed through intellectual probing. Pairing sensual and real objects and qualities yields the following framework:
- Sensual Object/Sensual Qualities: Sensual objects are present, but enmeshed within a "mist of accidental features and profiles".
- Sensual Object/Real Qualities: The structure of conscious phenomena are forged from eidetic, or experientially interpretive, qualities intuited intellectually.
- Real Object/Sensual Qualities: As in the tool-analysis, a withdrawn object is translated into sensual apprehension via a "surface" accessed by thought and/or action.
- Real Object/Real Qualities: This pairing grounds the capacity of real objects to differ from one another, without collapsing into indefinite substrata.
To explain how withdrawn objects make contact with and relate to one another, Harman submits the theory of vicarious causation, whereby two hypothetical entities meet in the interior of a third entity, existing side-by-side until something occurs to prompt interaction. Harman compares this idea to the classical notion of formal causation, in which forms do not directly touch, but influence one another in a common space "from which all are partly absent". Causation, says Harman, is always vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered:
'Vicarious' means that objects confront one another only by proxy, through sensual profiles found only on the interior of some other entity. 'Asymmetrical' means that the initial confrontation always unfolds between a real object and a sensual one. And 'buffered' means that [real objects] do not fuse into [sensual objects], nor [sensual objects] into their sensual neighbors, since all are held at bay through unknown firewalls sustaining the privacy of each. from the asymmetrical and buffered inner life of an object, vicarious connections arise occasionally...giving birth to new objects with their own interior spaces.
Thus, causation entails the connection between a real object residing within the directionality of consciousness, or a unified "intention," with another real object residing outside of the intention, where the intention itself is also classified as a real object. From here, Harman extrapolates five types of relations between objects. Containment describes a relation in which the intention "contains" both the real object and sensual object. Contiguity connotes relations between sensual objects lying side-by-side within an intention, not affecting one another, such that a sensual object's bystanders can be rearranged without disrupting the object's identity. Sincerity characterizes the absorption of a real object by a sensual object, in a manner that "takes seriously" the sensual object without containing or being contiguous to it. Connection conveys the vicarious generation of intention by real objects indirectly encountering one another. Finally, no relation represents the typical condition of reality, since real objects are incapable of direct interaction and are limited in their causal influence upon and relation to other objects.
Since its inception by Graham Harman in 1999, many authors in a variety of disciplines have adapted and expanded upon Harman's ideas.
Like Harman, Levi Bryant opposes post-Kantian anthropocentrism and philosophies of access. From Bryant's perspective, the Kantian contention that reality is accessible to human knowledge because it is structured by human cognition limits philosophy to a self-reflexive analysis of the mechanisms and institutions through which cognition structures reality. He states:
For, in effect, the Copernican Revolution will reduce philosophical investigation to the interrogation of a single relation: the human-world gap. And indeed, in the reduction of philosophy to the interrogation of this single relation or gap, not only will there be excessive focus on how humans relate to the world to the detriment of anything else, but this interrogation will be profoundly asymmetrical. For the world or the object related to through the agency of the human will becomes a mere prop or vehicle for human cognition, language, and intentions without contributing anything of its own.
To counter the form of post-Kantian epistemology, Bryant articulates an object-oriented philosophy called onticology, grounded in three principles. First, the Ontic Principle states that "there is no difference that does not make a difference". Following from the premises that questions of difference precede epistemological interrogation and that to be is to create differences, this principle posits that knowledge cannot be fixed prior to engagement with difference. And so, for Bryant, the thesis that there is a thing-in-itself which we cannot know is untenable because it presupposes forms of being that make no differences. Similarly, concepts of difference predicated upon negation—that which objects are not or lack when placed in comparison with one another—are dismissed as arising only from the perspective of consciousness, rather than an ontological difference that affirms independent being. Second, the Principle of the Inhuman asserts that the concept of difference producing difference is not restricted to human, sociocultural, or epistemological domains, thereby marking the being of difference as independent of knowledge and consciousness. Humans exist as difference-making beings among other difference-making beings, therefore, without holding any special position with respect to other differences. Third, the Ontological Principle maintains that if there is no difference that does not also make a difference, then the making of difference is the minimal condition for the existence of being. In Bryant's words, "if a difference is made, then the being is". Bryant further contends that differences produced by an object can be inter-ontic (made with respect to another object) or intra-ontic (pertaining the internal constitution of the object).
Onticology distinguishes between four different types of objects: bright objects, dim objects, dark objects, and rogue objects. Bright objects are objects that strongly manifest themselves and heavily impact other objects, such as the ubiquity of cell phones in high-tech cultures. Dim objects lightly manifest themselves in an assemblage of objects; for example, a neutrino passing through solid matter without producing observable effects. Dark objects are objects that are so completely withdrawn that they produce no local manifestations and do not affect any other objects. Rogue objects are not chained to any given assemblage of objects, but instead wander in and out of assemblages, modifying relations within the assemblages into which they enter. Political protestors exemplify rogue objects by breaking with the norms and relations of a dominant political assemblage in order to forge new relations that challenge, change, or cast off the prior assemblage. Additionally, Bryant has proposed the concept of 'wilderness ontology' to explain the philosophical pluralization of agency away from human privilege.
Timothy Morton became involved with object-oriented ontology after his ecological writings were favorably compared with the movement's ideas. In The Ecological Thought, Morton introduced the concept of hyperobjects to describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium. He has subsequently enumerated five characteristics of hyperobjects:
- Viscous: Hyperobjects adhere to any other object they touch, no matter how hard an object tries to resist. In this way, hyperobjects overrule ironic distance, meaning that the more an object tries to resist a hyperobject, the more glued to the hyperobject it becomes.
- Molten: Hyperobjects are so massive that they refute the idea that spacetime is fixed, concrete, and consistent.
- Nonlocal: Hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space to the extent that their totality cannot be realized in any particular local manifestation. For example, global warming is a hyperobject that impacts meteorological conditions, such as tornado formation. According to Morton, though, objects don't feel global warming, but instead experience tornadoes as they cause damage in specific places. Thus, nonlocality describes the manner in which a hyperobject becomes more substantial than the local manifestations they produce.
- Phased: Hyperobjects occupy a higher dimensional space than other entities can normally perceive. Thus, hyperobjects appear to come and go in three-dimensional space, but would appear differently to an observer with a higher multidimensional view.
- Interobjective: Hyperobjects are formed by relations between more than one object. Consequently, objects are only able to perceive the imprint, or "footprint," of a hyperobject upon other objects, revealed as information. For example, global warming is formed by interactions between the Sun, fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide, among other objects. Yet, global warming is made apparent through emissions levels, temperature changes, and ocean levels, making it seem as if global warming is a product of scientific models, rather than an object that predated its own measurement.
According to Morton, hyperobjects not only become visible during an age of ecological crisis, but alert humans to the ecological dilemmas defining the age in which they live. Additionally, the existential capacity of hyperobjects to outlast a turn toward less materialistic cultural values, coupled with the threat many such objects pose toward organic matter gives them a potential spiritual quality, in which their treatment by future societies may become indistinguishable from reverential care.
Alien phenomenology (Bogost)
Ian Bogost, a video game researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of Persuasive Games, has articulated an "applied" object-oriented ontology, concerned more with the being of specific objects than the exploration of foundational principles. Bogost calls his approach alien phenomenology, with the term "alien" designating the manner in which withdrawal accounts for the inviolability of objectal experience. From this perspective, an object may not recognize the experience of other objects because objects relate to one another using metaphors of selfhood.
Alien phenomenology is grounded in three "modes" of practice. First, ontography entails the production of works that reveal the existence and relation of objects. Second, metaphorism denotes the production of works that speculate about the "inner lives" of objects, including how objects translate the experience of other objects into their own terms. Third, carpentry indicates the creation of artifacts that illustrate the perspective of objects, or how objects construct their own worlds. Bogost sometimes refers to his version of object-oriented thought as a tiny ontology to emphasize his rejection of rigid ontological categorization of forms of being, including distinctions between "real" and "fictional" objects.
Some commentators contend that object-oriented ontology degrades meaning by placing humans and objects on equal footing. Matthew David Segall has argued that object-oriented philosophers should explore the theological and anthropological implications of their ideas in order to avoid "slipping into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe".
Other critical commentators such as David Berry and Alexander Galloway have commented on the historical situatedness of an ontology that mirrors computational processes and even the metaphors and language of computation. Pancomputationalism and digital philosophy explore these ideas further.
Joshua Simon contextualized the rise of popularity of the theory in contemporary art circles as a variation on commodity fetishism - a return to the primacy of the object, in a post-2008 art market.
Cultural critic Steven Shaviro has criticized object-oriented ontology as too dismissive of process philosophy. According to Shaviro, the process philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, Gilbert Simondon, and Gilles Deleuze account for how objects come into existence and endure over time, in contrast to the view that objects "are already there" taken by object-oriented approaches. Shaviro also finds fault with Harman's assertion that Whitehead, Simondon, and Iain Hamilton Grant undermine objects by positing objects as manifestations of a deeper, underlying substance, saying that the antecedence of these thinkers, particularly Grant and Simondon, includes the "plurality of actually existing objects", rather than a single substance of which objects are mere epiphenomena.
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