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.