Startling Water: Epistemologies and Ecologies

rushing water


Re-reading Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object, I am reminded of an unsophisticated argument in favor of current varieties of realism, or at least intuitions that there is more to objects than we perceive.  Though this argument may seem like common sense, I am responding to strong evidence that epistemological agnosticism, like moral relativity, has become more common (in academic circles) than speculations about what may lie beyond our perceptions.  Our internalized memory of the startle effect, from infancy, gives rise to an intuition that there is more to objects than what we perceive, at any given time, or ever.  This is both common sense and “brain science” (see next paragraph).  And this may also be true of our relationship to vital ecological objects and processes.  In other words, does the startle effect (in general) support the idea that objects somehow conceal themselves, and that individual moments of perception are, in some sense, passing fancies?

An infant is startled when a soap bubble bursts, a pyramid of blocks collapses, a dog barks.  A toddler turns the volume knob on a stereo and runs away in toddler horror when the music blares.  These events become episodic memories, and eventually semantic memories, or knowledge, that objects conceal aspects of themselves, which they later reveal.  And at some point these episodic and semantic memories become procedural (The Brain and the Inner World, Solms and Turnbull 2010).  We know, or intuit, without conscious thought, that objects are more than what they appear to be at any given point in time.  We also experience the startle effect in adulthood: in personal relationships, in politics, through the media, and through experimentation.

The startle effect may project an infinite epistemological horizon that challenges positivism.  It may also reveal the”idols” or “screens” of our perception and thus reinforce phenomenological and/or pragmatic approaches.  (I’m referring here to Francis Bacon’s doctrine of the idols in his Novum Organon, 1620, and Kenneth Burke’s “Terministic Screens” in Language as Symbolic Action, 1966.)  However, reflecting on the startle effect, should also render the intuition that objects are more than what they appear more than a signal of a naïve positivism.  We may have no reason to believe we will ever understand the depths of objects, but this is quite different than equating them with our perceptions.

What does this have to do with the environment?

“Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear” is the subtitle of the Introduction to Tim Morton’s Realist Magic (2013).  In another time and place flowing water was considered sacred.  In this time and another place (not Chicago) clean water is still or once again highly valued.  The State of California declared a State of Emergency earlier this year because of drought conditions.  So water is closer and farther than it appears in the mirror.  It is so necessary to our existence as to be virtually identical with our being . . . but it cannot really be conjured by plumbing fixtures.  Morton also reminds us that there is no “different dimension called Away” in the context of air pollution and waste (Hyperobjects, “Viscocity” chapter, Kindle location 609).  Even if we could export waste beyond the biosphere, the process would further pollute our environs.  Similarly, there is no magic source or spring of fresh water outside of the hydrological cycle.



 There is more to water than appears from any personal, professional, or cultural perspective.  Do Californians “see” water differently because they have developed new water habits? How will we regard water when—not if—“hotspots” erupt into armed conflicts in the U.S. and abroad?  Perhaps my argument about the startle effect is not quite common sense, nor quite philosophical.  However it might be pragmatic.  Someone may have the last laugh if we run blindly off the proverbial cliff, but it’s unlikely that we would recover from the fall like Wile E. Coyote.


Image sources:

1. St Francis Chronicle, September 16, 2012. <>

2. (Aral Sea) “World’s 4th Largest Lake.”  <>

3. Page Museum: La Brea Tar Pits. <


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