by Rick Elmore
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of responding to a paper by Tim Morton on his concept of hyperobjects (His blog can be found here). One of the things that struck me most in that piece was the immense scope of subject matter. In that short twenty-page essay he discussed everything from global climate change to Gaussian space time, as well as, a swath of the history of philosophy. It was quite a crew. And they were rolling very, very deep. The scope of Morton’s references is, to my mind, one of the finest aspects of his thinking, opening unique trajectories of inquiry by constellating a diverse universe of subject matter. In this regard, Morton’s most recent book, Realist Magic is no exception. The menagerie of examples and references is, to be honest, a little overwhelming, in a way that reminds one of Žižek or Baudrillard. However, the central claim of the book can be summed up quite succinctly: “causality is wholly an aesthetic phenomenon” (Introduction). Now there is, I think, a necessary connection between this claim and the scope of examples, concepts, and objects Morton uses to explain it, as Morton’s argumentative style performs the very adventure in casual thinking that it details, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Realist Magic is, first and foremost, “an exploration of causality from the point of view of object-oriented ontology.” (Introduction). Now for those not familiar with OOO, one of the central tenets of this school of thought is that the essence of objects is inaccessible. In an OOO universe, the essence of all objects constantly recede from one another and from themselves, in the sense that, when objects interact, they never fully converge or exhaust one another. For OOO proponents this is, of course, an ontological claim. However, for those made nervous by the move to ontology, I would point out that, formally, this is not that different from the generally accepted notion that there is a necessary or constitutive incompleteness at the heart of all systems, concepts, and representations. I seriously doubt many of us would want to argue that this constitutive incompleteness is not materially real, a fact that perhaps provides some middle ground between OOO and much of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy. But I digress.
Whether or not one distrusts the move to ontology, it does open up the question of causality in an OOO universe, since if the essences of all objects constantly recede from one another (and from themselves), one is left to explain how two objects could ever actually interact. For example, if the material essence of a cup and the material essence of a table are ontologically receding from each other, how is it that a cup can sit on a table at all? Realist Magic is a careful and thorough account of causality that solves this basic concern by showing, quite convincingly, that causality is an aesthetic phenomenon: it is a process of “translation” by which objects “sample” aspects of one another. As Morton puts it, “[t]he kind of causality that best describes objects has to do with information flow, copying, sampling, and translation” (The History of Substance). Causality, for Morton, is an object translating another object’s appearance in terms of its own appearance. In short, causality occurs when a cup cups the table, and the table tables the cup, and a human humans the coffee, etc. This is an elegant solution to the problem of receding essences, since it accounts for how objects interact but in essence never touch. Morton traces the way in which his aesthetic account of causality mirrors Aristotle’s account of rhetoric, allowing for a robust account of the emergence, persistence, and death of causal objects. Hence, Realist Magic is to some degree a text for the specialist or those already familiar with OOO. However, it also provides a nice introduction to the basic tenets of OOO thinking, detailing the essential themes, questions, problems, and trajectories of OOO in an accessible, easy, and readable style. Yet, this is only one of the ways that Realist Magic has appeal far beyond just the audience of OOO proponents.
Stepping back from the technicalities of OOO, one of the guiding themes of Realist Magic is a challenge to the dominance of mechanistic accounts of causality, or what Morton calls “Clunk Causality.” For Morton, mechanism is a secondary causal phenomenon that has, problematically, come to appear primary:
[C]lunking implies a linear time sequence, a container in which one metal ball can swing towards another one and click against it. Yet before and after are strictly secondary to the sharing of information. There has to be a whole setup involving an executive toy and a desk and a room and probably at least one bored executive before that click happens. Clunk causality is the fetishistic reification, not sensual causality! (Interobjectivity Revisited)
When two metal balls interact in the context of an executive desk toy there are forces at play that cannot be reduced to this “clinking together” and, yet, are inseparable from it. For example, one needs a social, political, and economic system in which humans spend their time making things like executive desk toys, but one also needs an atmosphere, gravity, the extraction of material elements, designers, math, the desire to illustrate the principle of perpetual motion, etc. Mechanistic causality is an ideological moment of simplification, one that comes to take over our thinking of causality in a way that obscures the much more complicated network of interactions at work.
One of Morton’s overarching points is that the complex of forces and causal interactions all around us can’t be addressed with mechanism alone, and, therefore, requires a move to thinking causality in a new way. The experiential immediacy of mechanistic causality, its container like assumptions about space and time, its construction of humans and objects on a model of individualism—these are all challenged by Morton’s aesthetic account in a way that resonates with other exciting developments going on in philosophy and critical theory, for example, critical animal studies. In this sense, Realist Magic has a little something for everyone, challenging its readers to see causality for the counterintuitive, often bizarre, and genuinely exciting object it is. Reading it, I was brought back to one of the fundamental things that first excited me about the adventure of philosophy, namely, the question of to what degree the world is the way it appears. Realist Magic is just this sort of adventure, and one well worth taking.
Images by Paul Bond from “Abduzeedo,” here.