Explaining Object Oriented Ontology to your non-OOO friends

by Rick Elmore

I must first thank Liam Heneghan for the invitation to contribute to Environmental Critique.  It’s been exciting to read everyone’s posts, and it confirms my belief that I keep good company or that good company keeps me.  In either case, it’s been wonderful.  In particular, the emphasis on the question of objects and on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) in both Randall Honold’s and Christine Skolink’s posts got me thinking that it might be helpful to say something about the challenges that OOO thought puts to us or has put to me.

My interest in OOO is still young, being only a little more than a year old.  However, I’ve found that, much as my daughter did at that age, this little interest simply demands my attention.  Thankfully, it has yet to wake me in the night to feed it.  However, I have found that like a new parent, I seem incapable of having a conversation that does not inevitably make its way back to this new interest.  Over the last year, I have attempted repeatedly to explain to my “non-OOO” friends (dare I call them Idealist friends?) exactly what I find compelling or interesting in OOO.  I’ve surely not always explained myself well, but I’d like to give it one more go.  What I find intriguing about OOO, in the most basic sense is first that I love the way it challenges us with realism and, second, I’m interested in what it offers the critique of anthropocentrism.  Allow me to expound a little.

One of the key challenges that I think OOO lays down is its commitment to realism, the belief that objects exist independent of the human mind.  Now realism has had little purchase in the history of philosophy where it is generally seen as a kind of pseudo-problem.  To be a realist seems to commit one to the dogmatic assertion that objects are simply out there in the world.  Now OOO thinkers, like Graham Harman, are not arguing that objects are simple things or that we have unmediated access to them.  For Harman, global climate change is just as much an object as a hammer.  This understanding of what it means to be an object makes the time, space, locality, and character of “object” much stranger than if one merely says that stuff exists.  Yet, stuff does exist.  Now what I find fascinating about this emphasis on realism is that it demands we take a stand on objects, to say explicitly what we mean when we talk about objects.  Do we believe that objects exist without our observing them?  Do we think that their existence depends upon their relationship to humans or to other objects?   Do honey bees, for example, exist only insofar as they interact with “us”?

Faced with these questions, I have found that I tend to answer in the negative.  I don’t think that honey bees, hammers, or a whole family of other objects need a relationship to humans in order to exist.  In a quite surprising philosophical turn of events, I’ve found that I am, in fact, a realist.  Okay.  So what’s the big deal?  You’re a realist.  This sounds like the kind of problem only a philosopher could have.  Maybe.  But this realization exposed to me a tension in my thinking about objects, namely, that I seem to think that we can talk about objects outside their relationship to human thought.  This claim that, on the surface, might seem small in fact challenges a basic commitment held by many us raised in the intellectual currents of post-structuralism:  that one can’t think about or talk about that which is outside of thought.  The logic of this widely held claim is that to think about that which is other than thought, makes of it a thought thus undermining such thinking from the beginning.

I have always found this argument fairly compelling.  It’s the basis of many of my philosophical commitments, for example, to dialectics or to the problem of otherness in general.  Yet, what this OOO inspired adventure into realism has shown me is that there is a real tension in my own thinking about objects.  On the one hand, I’m committed to the notion that objects exist independently from humans and, on the other, I am committed to a philosophical position that makes it all but impossible to talk about these objects or their independence from us.  It is this tension that has kept me coming back to OOO.  Now perhaps I have gotten overly philosophical, but one can easily articulate this tension in terms of the question of the human.

Whether right or wrong, the claim that we can’t talk about objects outside of their relationship to humans certainly places the human at the center of things.  This process is seen in the emphasis of so much of 20th century philosophy on language, meaning, signification, etc.  Now, I love this kind of philosophy, but I’m also committed to the notion that anthropocentrism is a serious problem.  I think for most us interested in environmentalism or animal rights it is pretty obvious that the self-importance of the human has to be undermined or at least rethought if progress is going to be made.  This is where OOO is interesting once again, as it helps to clarify, I think, the profound anthropocentrism of Western philosophy.

If one remains committed to a thinking that finds remarkable difficulty in talking about objects without reference to the human, does one not remain, as OOO thinkers argue, profoundly committed to an anthropocentric idealism?  Is this not one way to begin thinking about the problems that, for example, philosophy and science have had talking to one another?  These are the kinds of questions that OOO has brought up for me.  Sure, sometimes I have to walk out of the room to stop from picking up and violently shaking this little interest of mine.  But I keep coming back because I just can’t wait to see what it may do next.

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10 responses to “Explaining Object Oriented Ontology to your non-OOO friends

  1. This is terrific thanks Rick. I know I should be more swept up by the OOO thing – it genuinely interests me (though I am investing heavily in Kant at the moment and he’s beginning to seem like a pair of legwarmers in the 90s (okay…maybe you’re to young for this one!)) I have been trying to locate my concerns about OOO as an ecologist though, and the following is probably close:

    Environmental thinking has not been well served methinks by assuming that real nature is “over there”, that an appropriate relationship with a natural thing is to sneak reverentially up to it and then slowly non-disruptively back away (I think most env writers have said something along these lines in the past decade). This relationship with natural objects is of course empirically vacuous and pragmatically unsuccessful. Anthropocentrism in ecology has not suffered from thinking and making too much of ourselves but possibly from holding ourselves fetishistically is too low a regard. Does OOO not put the environmentalist back into the position of making objects remote? I know that there is a thicket of writing from the prolific OOOers that would cogently deny this at the level of philosophy, but at the level of practical conservation etc, does does is not seem to be that case that this realism will put it back at the environmental starting line?

    • Rick Elmore

      Thanks Liam, and I particularly appreciate that you think me young enough to have not been scarred by 80’s fashion (not the case as it turns out, but a nice thought). The question of the remoteness of objects is an interesting one in OOO, and marks some of the differences between Graham Harman’s thinking and that of Levi Bryant. The question is what is at stake in OOOer’s different descriptions of the nature of objects?
      Harman describes this relation in terms of a fourfold structure inspired out of his reading of Husserl and Heidegger, while Bryant’s account is structured around various moments of difference. One thing that has always struck me in Harman’s work is the way in which he talks of the “tension” internal to objects (there are four of them, hence the fourfold structure of object) while simultaneously putting forth a strong critique of relationality. So for Harman, objects are rift by tensions and yet are also profoundly autonomous. Holding those two seemingly contradictory notions creates all sorts of weirdness. For example, it becomes very difficult to account for how objects could literally touch each other, since they are always seemingly distant from one another. This is why Harman turns to the notion of Occasionalism. However, before I get too far afield, the point is that the very notion of OOOers is somewhat deceptive, as the group of thinkers one might group under this term actually have very different accounts of objects. I personally find Bryant’s account, for example, in The Democracy of Objects very compelling insofar as he wants to challenge the primacy of the human by seeing the human as merely one object among others, while maintaining a language of difference to describe the internal and external relations of objects. This is Christine’s first point, which I very much agree with. (thanks for your comments Christine). However, there is always going to be a moment of non-relation for OOOers, an important and profound non-relation. One name for this moment could be Realism. I’m not sure if this puts us back at the starting line as you suggest, but I think that Christine is on to something in trying to find the evolutionary equivalent of this non-relation. Surely a robust account of non-relation would contribute greatly to answering these concerns. In fact, I wonder if one can’t, in some sense, understand what OOO is up to as precisely trying to give such an account. Thanks again to both of you for your awesome comments.

      • First a quick correction and clarification in my original reply: “Anthropocentrism in ecology has suffered *not* from thinking and making too much of ourselves but possibly from holding ourselves fetishistically *in* too low a regard.

        I like the point from Bryant where you say he “wants to challenge the primacy of the human by seeing the human as merely one object among others, while maintaining a language of difference to describe the internal and external relations of objects.” The notion of human’s being one among others is to some extent the gesture of ecology wearing its natural science/natural history spectacles. On the one hand it has the prospect of remedying a view that sees the humans as Lords and Ladies of Creation. On the other hand it seems better than the inclination towards pessimism that characterizes some forms of environmental thought, (humans as planetary pox). But since this form of ecology (i.e. nat sci/nat hist) does not really have a rich philosophical tradition concerning objects at all, I had rather hoped that Kant could be applied like a poultice to environmental thought, but perhaps OOO can be helpful. It least the literature remains manageable in it volumes.

        For the record, if you were wearing leg warmers in the 80s they presumably went adorably well with you muppet’s school bag. That I wore leg warmers in the 80s…well, that might be the stuff of tragedy.

        I like Christine’s suggestion about the potential for evolutionary metaphor too. Maybe one that comes from system’s theory can also be helpful… emergence, etc?

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Ecstatic thoughts:

    1) For me the the big difference between OOO and the old human/nature split is the status of the human being as object. This is better than the most empathetic, sensitive subject. Sensitive subjectivity is just more of the same privilege (beautiful soul). It’s as though we have never been democratic.

    2) Re. thinking outside of thought. There must be some kind of evolutionary analogy for the proverbial reach exceeding the proverbial grasp. Lots of psychological concepts for that. Jung argues that when one is faced with an intractable personal problem/paradox one eventually transcends the internal conflict by simply developing a new perspective. It’s not unlike neuronal growth. On one level it’s an incredibly complex and mysterious process. On another level the brain evolves the brain, perhaps through a complex systems logic. (A tool and die making of sorts.) But on the simplest level, it’s merely problem solving.

    And yes, thank you Rick! As you can see I’m also doting on the Os.

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  4. Randall

    I hope I’m not coming too late to the party here. I want to thank Rick first for name-checking me and second for butt-kicking me. It’s clear I need to get more fluent with Harman, Bryant, DeLanda, et al. So let me say only that my thoughts right now (brain fighting image of Liam in leg warmers – aack!) are about the tension you describe, Rick: being a realist but not naive about it. This is a dilemma for me, too. I think I’m in line with Christine and her comment about problem-solving. The reflexive moves we make trying to understand ourselves understanding objects are misdirected, I think, if they’re framed as epistemological; this is the way to more “beautiful souls.” Maybe this process of the production of new perspectives (such as OOO) is like the rise of dissipative structures – rather than dialectical syntheses.

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