Tag Archives: OOO


An Initial Exploration

by Jeff VanderMeer


long exposure



Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, which sets out a series of thoughts about “dark ecologies,” has become central to thinking about storytelling in the modern era, in my opinion. Morton’s central idea of a hyperobject is in a sense a way of using a word as an anchor for something that would be otherwise hard to picture in its entirety–it is an all-encompassing metaphor that also has its own reality, both literal and figurative, here and there. The word therefore is a very important signifier for any fiction writer wishing to engage with the fragmented and diffuse issues related to the Anthropocene.

What is a hyperobject? Something viscous (they stick–to your mind, to the environment) and nonlocal (local versions are manifestations from afar). Their unique temporality renders them invisible to human beings for stretches of time and they exhibit effects in the interrelationship of objects. In the instance of most interest to both Morton and to me, global warming can be considered as hyperobject. And even with just this bare context given, it should be clear why the term is of use. Because a hyperobject is everywhere and nowhere, cannot really be held in one place by the human brain, reaction to it by the human world is often irrational or inefficient or wrong.

If global warming in the Anthropocene can be identified in general as a hyperobject, there is perhaps further value in describing it specifically as a kind of haunting. At least, this is of extreme interest to me as a fiction writer and someone who wants to find new ways of telling stories that better fit the extremes of our era.

As Maria de Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren write in “Possessions: Spectral Places” in The Spectralities Reader (Bloomsbury), “Repetition of events, images, and localities is one of the recurrent motifs of the uncanny.” What is global warming but repetitions bound by laws of cause and effect that come to feel uncanny because no one can see the entire outline of a hyperobject (i.e., elements of both cause and effect seem invisible)? Global warming is an inherently destabilizing force for this reason, whereas the uncanny is neutral because it can be used to either destabilize the reader’s perception of the world, or, by story’s end, to reinforce the status quo.

Rather than creating escapism, mapping elements of the Anthropocene via weird fiction may create a greater and more visceral understanding (render more visible)—precisely because so many of the effects of this era are felt in and under the skin, as well as in the subconscious (whether manifesting as a denial of civilization’s death or in a more personal manner).

In the introduction to the anthology The Weird, coedited with my wife Ann VanderMeer, I wrote that the weird tale “represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread’ or ‘particular suspension or defeat of . . . fixed laws of Nature’.” [i]

In the modern era, the hyperobject of global warming makes such a mockery of what our five senses can perceive that the “fixed laws of Nature” seem more and more, through, for example, extreme weather events, to have become un-fixed, the compass spinning wildly. The laws of science, which often seem resolute, begin to seem less so, even if this is just our faulty perception.

The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. What, for example, is William T. Vollman’s Imperial, a thousand-page rumination on the psycho-ecological cost of the ruination of the Salton Sea, other than a vast and apocalyptic haunting?

It is a haunting first of the author, who confesses at one point he could not remove his personal perspective because he was too affected by what he was observing. It is a haunting second in the reader through the repetition of description of ecological impact and loss, which begins to manifest as physical stress or nightmares. The book is an especially potent example of purgatory in the uncanny, because it provides a glimpse of mid-Collapse in the Anthropocene—a transitional state in which those affected may not even realize the progression of decay in the moment. This kind of haunting in progress dislocates and relocates both the mind and the body. The value of such a book lies not in its facts or its adherence to ideas about science, but in conveying the totality of this mid-Collapse condition.

Extrapolating outward from the epicenter of the Salton Sea, we find the visible in the invisible and the same repetition across other bodies of water and water in general—which has become the ultimate uncanny element. The consequences of our actions in even the deepest parts of the ocean lie hidden from us, “out of sight, out of mind.” Plastic bottles of water are also part of the visible invisible, the repetition of idea and ideology we don’t often acknowledge or don’t know what to do with—a bottle of water is at this point life and death packaged in the same object. We, in our millions, like a cute octopus hiding in an open soda can on the sea bed, surrounded by a desolate landscape denuded of life without acknowledging we’re looking at trash. Only when the evidence is too visible or extraordinary to be overlooked or subsumed by the landscape does this kind of haunting become noticeable—as when toxic algae bloom on the coast of Florida in part because of the untenable practices of large-scale agriculture. Otherwise, it is an unpleasant hum in the background that continues to colonize our bodies and our lives despite our inattention to it. Even as the pumps being built on Miami Beach to keep the water out make sounds as they work like a dark absurdist laughter from an unseen specter.



Reading about hauntings and thinking about them in terms of Vollman’s book helped me understand where the idea for Area X in my Southern Reach trilogy came from . . . something that was not immediately apparent. Yes, I had a dream of walking down into a tunnel-tower and seeing living words on the walls. Yes, I woke up and the biologist character was in my head and that next morning I wrote the first ten pages of Annihilation, which would remain more or less unchanged in the final draft.

But for a long time I didn’t realize what irritant or issue or problem had lodged in my subconscious to force Area X out. Finally, though, I realized that the Gulf Oil Spill had created Area X. It wasn’t something I said out loud at first because it sounds vaguely or not so vaguely pretentious—overly earnest. But it’s true. By the time of the Gulf Oil Spill I had lived in North Florida for over 20 years and through my hiking and experiences in the wilderness along that coast I felt for the first time in a wandering life like I belonged in a place, in a landscape.

Then suddenly the oil was gushing out in the Gulf, and it couldn’t be contained, and for many of us in the area it was gushing in our minds, and we could not get away from it. It was haunting us day and night, always there—a phantom sound, a phantom thought. For a time, for more than a month it wasn’t clear the well would ever be capped. For more than a month, many of us thought this catastrophe would last for years, and the Gulf and Gulf Coast would be, in essence, gone.

But even after they capped the well, it was still somewhere in the back of my mind, and eventually that dark swirl coalesced into a dark tunnel with words on the wall, and an invisible border and Area X: a strange place in which nature was always becoming more what it had always been without human interference: less contaminated, less compromised. Safe. Where the oil was being taken out.

Oil, like water, creates a particular kind of haunting. The best recent example might be the airport scene in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. The narrator fixates on the scenes of oil that haunt the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal and the details about oil not only place it in the foreground, leaking out over fellow travelers but, in the descriptions, oil attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny. McCarthy’s hierarchy in the scene inhabits both the surface and subtext, providing a view of oil as a more ubiquitous and over-arching definition of planet Earth than humankind. After reading this scene, it would be impossible to view oil as “inert” or unalive ever again, or as non-political. Supposedly we already know these things, but sometimes fiction can make us feel them in our bones.



The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. There may be only one way into Area X, but there are a thousand ways out. As Michel de Certeau explains in The Practice of Everyday Life, “Every place has its own . . . proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place . . . Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects . . . haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”

In the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, the hauntings are smaller and more intimate. The size of rooms inside the Southern Reach building often doesn’t match their insides and lines of dialogue from Annihilation spirit across the hallways the main character Control walks down and a member of the twelfth expedition comes back as someone called Ghost Bird and the psychological overlays of some of the characters, across both the landscape and fellow employees, form a haunting with multiple sedimentary levels. The obsolete tech of past decades haunts the present.

With that sanctuary left behind in Acceptance, manifestations pour out across the sky, birds “trailing blurs of color that resemble other versions of themselves and the air seemed malleable, or like it could be convinced or coerced . . . In the lengthening silence and solitude, Area X sometimes would reveal itself in unexpected ways. Standing in a clearing one evening, I felt a kind of breath or thickness of molecules behind that I could not identify, and I willed my heartbeat to slow, hoping to be so quiet that without turning I might hear or in some other way glimpse what regarded me. But to my relief it fled or withdrew into the ground a moment later.”

“The correlation between movement and progress is broken [in a haunting] and progress is broken and the subject succumbs to a feeling of ungroundedness and spatio-temporal disjointedness,” Blanco and Peeren write.

“Time runs on time,” writes the great dark ecologies poet Aase Berg, “Time runs on time and starvation and the weakness carries me in across the gray regions. And the soul’s dark night will slowly be lowered through me. That is why I now slowly fold myself like a muscle against the wet clay…I will sleep now in my bird’s body in the down, and a bitter star will radiate eternally above the glowing face’s watercourse.”

Thomas Hardy writes of a fallen soldier, “Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be;/His homely Northern breast and brain/Grow to some Southern tree,/And strange-eyed constellations reign/His stars eternally.”

In Authority, my main character, Control, hung-over and definitely not in control and caught in the grip of horrors, stares from the window of a café, bleary-eyed at the liquor store that in his youth had been a department store and reflects.

“Long before the town of Hedley was built, there had been an indigenous settlement here, along the river and the remains of that lay beneath the liquor store. Down below the store, too, a labyrinth of limestone cradling the aquifer, narrow caves and blind albino crawfish and soft-glowing crickets. Surrounded by the crushed remains of so many creatures, loamed into the rock and soil, pushed down by the foundations of the buildings. Would that be the biologist’s understanding of the street—what she would see? Perhaps she would see, too, one possible future of that space, the liquor store crumbling under an onslaught of vines and weather damage, becoming akin to the sunken, moss-covered hills near Area X.”

In the Anthropocene, hauntings and similar manifestations become emissaries or transition points between the human sense of time and the geological sense of time, “Earth magnitude” as Morton puts it. In a very real sense, the weird can convey a breadth and depth that otherwise belongs to that land of seismic activity inside of a geologist’s brain.

“Yeah, this place is haunted,” Giant Sand sings, “but only by a ghost.”

The things that haunt us in this age are often the things we care about or have some connection to, no matter how slight, and if they are also the things that matter we either need to become cynics or hedonists and change the things we care about so we don’t care when they’re destroyed, so the hauntings cannot affect us . . . or, more bravely and with more effort, let them haunt us even if it is painful, and through that haunting find some kind of act or sense of the truth that is meaningful. No matter how large. No matter how small. All while the hyperobject I am trying to pin down looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over.


Author’s note: In exploring these ideas, I may be retracing some of Timothy Morton’s own ideas as expressed in interviews and essays. For the moment, I’ve avoided reading the bulk of this possible influence, while planning to come back to it, so as to first emphasize my own perspective as not a philosopher but a writer of weird fiction. Some portions I gave as a lecture at Vanderbilt University earlier this year. Some sentences are reworked from related essays I wrote for Electric Literature, but are here redeployed in the service of different concepts. This essay constitutes an excerpt from a nonfiction book in progress.


[i] Examples abound locally. Governor Rick Scott’s psychopathy treated as a localized manifestation, once independent, now controlled by a hyperobject wraith generated by the Gulf Oil Spill. Governor Rick Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection re-envisioned as a haunting transformed under the skin by malignant storytelling and infiltrating Florida—an invisible pollution of hauntings released into the world like the natural gas leak that went untreated near Porter Ranch outside of Los Angeles.


Image source: Making the Invisible Visible <http://www.svrdesign.com/blog/2013/08/making-the-invisible-visible>  CS



Filed under Climate Change, Jeff VanderMeer, Tim Morton

The Quadruple Object and Weird Realism


Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy is an eccentric monograph that misses various marks of contemporary literary criticism and yet presents a useful tool for reading weird literature. Harman’s references to a few Mid-Century Modern critics including Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks effectively dismisses criticism published in the last fifty years. Admittedly this Cthulu-like body of data is daunting even for literary critics, but Harman doesn’t even gesture to the current discipline. Harman interprets one hundred passages from the major works in the order that they appear, further undermining his own promising thesis with this bare method. The monograph is also repeatedly derailed by secondary arguments about paraphrase, and comedy and tragedy which contribute little to the overall thesis. Nevertheless Harman’s primary conceit is original, and his application persuasive enough to warrant the serious attention it has received from a cross-section of the critical theoretical community. Within the context of speculative realism, “hyperobjects,” alien phenomenology, and panpsychism, the weird has become a category not only for fiction and philosophy, but also for contemporary readings of the built and natural environment, and the fuzzy borders between any number of given categories of experience.

Let me summarize Harman’s thesis, which is closely based on the “new fourfold,” introduced in his Tool-Being, and is the focus of The Quadruple Object. Harman’s matrix is derived from combining Husserl’s distinction between qualities and objects, and Heidegger’s distinction between sensual the real objects (4-6). (Sensual objects appear to the subject; real objects categorically withdraw, even from themselves.) From these two axes Harman arrives at sensual objects (SO), real objects (RO), sensual qualities (SQ), and real qualities (RQ). This fourfold is intended as four aspects of all objects (rather that four categories of objects). Nevertheless, these four aspects interrelate in distinct ways, and these interrelationships are the focus on Harman’s “ontography,” as well as his reading of Lovecraft.  (See a recent review of The Quadruple Object here, though the present post contains a better summary of Harman’s basic thesis in that work.)


Sensual objects are comprised of sensual qualities but are distinct from those qualities because not all qualities of a sensual object are apparent at once. Sensual objects and their sensual qualities are accessible but dynamic. Thus Harman denotes this relationship (SO-SQ) as “time” (32). Because they withdraw, real objects do not interact with one another; however, real objects can interact with sensual objects. The relationship between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ) is termed “space” because both withdrawal and access are presumed to occur within this dimension (239). Real objects also have real qualities. Neither is accessible, but real qualities differ from sensual qualities because they cannot be separated from the object—hence Harman’s choice of “essence” to define the RO-RQ relationship. And real qualities can indirectly affect sensual objects. This indirect relationship (SO–RQ), is illustrated by the visible effects of an inaccessible object, like Harman’s example of a black hole indicated by swirling light (238). Harman argues, referencing Husserl, that we can derive real qualities from sensual objects through a form of theoretical inference he terms “eidos” (31-32). This scheme does not exhaust the possible relationship between the four aspects of an object or between two fourfold objects; however, it provides a powerful heuristic for understanding allusive language and for reading literature, which is categorically allusive.

Harman claims that Lovecraft, as “a writer of gaps and horror” is the poet laureate of object-oriented philosophy (2, 5, 32). Eliding for a moment the unfortunate resonances between Lovecraft’s racism and Heidegger’s fascism, we can readily appreciate Lovecraft as a chronicler of weird objects, and more so when we see his work through the prism of Harman’s “ontogrpahy” (33). Here are four examples that may be considered emblematic of Harman’s thesis.

A central figure in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness” and Harman’s discussion is an alien, “Cyclopean” Antarctic city of incomprehensibly strange and complex geometry and design (165-66). Harman compares Lovecraft’s description to a cubist painting (197). The object is presented from myriad, conflicting, perspectives and yet it remains impossible to grasp as a whole, in “time.” Harman identifies this moment as a tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities (234). The proliferation of sensual qualities suggests a sensual object that might potentially be grasped, and yet remains elusive.

Lovecraft’s famous Cthulu idol/monster represents the tension between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ). The monster is described with the sensual qualities of an octopus and a dragon, for example, but Lovecraft makes clear that no combination of these qualities approaches a description of the thing itself, which withdraws from its sensual qualities (237–38). Like many science-fiction monsters, Chtulu exceeds our comprehension in scale, nomenclature, motivation, and sheer potential. Under Harman’s sign of “space,” it is alarmingly present and yet “absolutely distant” (239).

A third example is a concept with withdraws on all levels, though as Harman notes this is rarer in Lovecraft’s corpus. “The Dreams in the Witch House” alludes to a “blind idiot god Azothoth“ through various literary tropes, but Lovecraft makes clear that these tropes merely cloak a “monstrous nuclear chaos” (234-35). Language indicates an absent presence: “both the object and its features resist all description” (234). Azohoth is a real object with real qualities (RO-RQ) but lacking any accessible sensual qualities. This is an example of Harman’s “essence.”

A final example is a controversy in “At the Mountain of Madness,” concerning fragments of slate which elude scientific testing. This example represents a tension between a sensual object and real qualities (SO- RQ). While we have come to expect that the scientific method is a means of inferring real qualities through sensual objects (“eidos”), the common sci-fi trope of introducing objects, such as space matter or alien technology, that remain resistant to scientific scrutiny illustrates a tension between sensual objects and real qualities (151-53). The confounded scientists identify sensual qualities, but these qualities have no relation to existing sensual object or their real qualities. Thus a sensual object can be present while resisting eidetic processes (235).

Harman’s arguments are often hard to follow, but generally worth the effort. However the most perplexing moment in Weird Realism is the discussion of Lovecraft’s racist stereotypes. (See previous Environmental Critique post on Lovecraft here.)  Harman acknowledges that these representations create an atmosphere of anxiety and panic, but misses an opportunity to explore a fairly obvious relationship between race and “ontography.” A racist stereotype is patently a tension between a sensual object and a real object. And socio-cultural biases in general can be confounded by counterexamples, in which sensual qualities exceed their sensual objects. Indeed, the process of destroying stereotypes might be described as circulating sensual qualities that challenge stereotypes as sensual objects. In this sense Lovecraft falls short as a writer for our time, and Harman misses a cue to connect object-oriented philosophy, science fiction, and race. Weird Realism provides a model for understanding some other monstrous aspects of contemporary culture, however, through Harman’s association with the common topoi of object-oriented philosophy at large.

As I implied in my introductory comments, Cluthu is like big data. We can access parts of the object, but we can never apprehend the whole, and have few reasons to believe the creature is subject to our control. Even more frightening may be a feeling that we are compelled to interact with this monster—that we are in a sense hypnotized. We see the effects of information but cannot grasp the sensual object. Similar comparisons could be made to other hyperobjects such as transnational consumer capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.

And so, inevitably, to the Anthropocene.  While some writers and critics see nature or human beings as the problem, it may be more accurate to say that human culture is the problem, or rather some contemporary aspects of human culture, both familiar and strangely beyond our grasp.  While pundits point fingers at corporations that profit from consumer culture, the monster may be closer to home.  It may be that the formless leviathan of the consumer is to blame.  This incomprehensibly complex hydra, with a widely distributed, prosthetic brain, billions of blind eyes, and an insatiable appetite for resources, amoral, seemingly immortal, and yet withdrawn from its animal, technological, and alien qualities (sensual and real), has become our intimate, our paramour, but seems completely beyond our most advanced cultures of discipline and control (be very afraid).

And yet hyperobjects are more frightening if we remain self-important, assuming they are out to get us—that we are the object of “alien” aggression.  Indifference is not aggression, there are no antagonists, and we are not tragic heroes.  Imagining “nature” or “culture” is poised to destroy us may be sheer adolescent, if not infantile, narcissism.  And if fear of a faceless, aggressive other is a contributing factor to paralysis, then perhaps getting over our selves might help to focus our own actions and energies and motivate sustained meliorative action.  Rather than preparing to fight off alien others, we could begin by recognizing the alien self, which categorically withdraws from our fortified self-image.  Alluding to Jeff VanderMeer’s contemporary weird fiction, acceptance may be a productive stance. (See previous EC post here.)[i]  I don’t mean that we should accept the status quo, but rather accept the uncomplicated responsibility to clean up our ecological mess, whether or not such reparations will ultimately benefit what we heretofore recognize as our kind.


Image credits:

  1. http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/weird-realism-lovecraft-and-philosophy-graham-harman/
  2. http://www.zero-books.net/books/quadruple-object-the
  3. http://io9.gizmodo.com/acceptance-proves-weird-stories-are-the-best-way-to-und-1686164322


[i] See additional Environmental Critique posts on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy here.

1 Comment

Filed under Literature, OOO

The Quadruple Object Revisited


A philosopher, a biologist, a rhetorician, and an anthropologist walk into a bar to discuss The Quadruple Object.[i] The philosopher says, “It’s not Heidegger.” The biologist says, “He’s discovered the scientific method.” The rhetorician says, “I thought metaphysics was dead.” And the anthropologist asks, “Is this a mandala?”

What follows is neither a summary of, nor belated initial response to Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2011). That moment has passed. Though many readers didn’t quite grasp the book, the critical theoretical community has been experimenting with Harman’s key terms in various contexts. This is because much of the work is compelling and memorable, though the whole is a little obscure. I will use the comic scenario in my opening as a point of departure for discussing some stumbling blocks in The Quadruple Object, before arguing that the text deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. I assume a basic familiarity with the text. (The uninitiated should begin here; I’ve also recently posted a summary of Harman’s fourfold here.)

“It’s not Heidegger.“  Yes, this book isn’t about Heidegger. The Quadruple Object is not a reading, let alone a close reading, of any philosopher, and Harman makes no claims to that effect. This may be a stumbling block for the academic community, however, because the book is famously based on Harman’s Tool-Being which is about Heidegger (though not Heidegger). Revisiting even a few sections of Heidegger will confirm that The Quadruple Object is not Heidegger, not altogether a bad thing.  Nevertheless, The Quadruple Object effectively directs our attention to Heidegger, and some of the best parts.

Comparing TQO[ii] to the scientific method may not be a misreading.  Bacon, Locke, and Hume, fathers of empiricism, were far from naïve about access to objects. Bacon and Locke, more tentative in their assertions than Hume, might not only grasp, but also deeply appreciate Harman’s new fourfold. Bacon’s Idols foreground perception without bracketing reality, for example, and Locke struggled to balance under-standing with a desire to grasp things. The work of these philosophers has little to do with contemporary materialism and positivism, however. Harman is not a materialist, which is confusing since he critiques idealism (and some readers might assume a two-party system). Nor is he a positivist, though his engagement with metaphysics and “the real” may throw off those of us raised on critiques of essentialism.

This brings us to the rhetorician.  In the 1990’s critical theorists repeatedly announced the death of metaphysics. This was confusing because every theoretical “death” was hailed as a distinct event.  But, as I recall, the late twentieth-century complaint with metaphysics wasn’t so much philosophical (read, phenomenological) as ethical.  At the birth of identity politics, essences, meta-narratives, and  transcendent values were generally frowned upon, with good reason. This is not to say that Harman’s metaphysics are categorically insensitive to race, class, and gender, all of which may be productively understood as quadruple objects. However, metaphysics is a stumbling block, and in this book Harman appears unaware of the not entirely stale critiques (though he gestures to them in the Introduction to Guerilla Metaphysics).  Moreover, it’s not clear in the text why TQO must be a metaphysics (except to assert it’s not merely an epistemology).  Harman’s invention of partial access seems both more and less than metaphysics (as we know it), however, and metaphysics seems unnecessary to broad application of his thesis.

If the anthropologist thinks Harman’s fourfold evokes a mandala, s/he may not be far off the mark. The mandala, as a fourfold archetypal representation of the psyche evokes Jung (always in productive tension with Freud), as well as Lacan’s “four discourses.”  (See Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Object, section 4.4.)  Harman discusses the psyche at length, but possibly with insufficient self-consciousness regarding his overall system. (And what about Deleuze’s Leibniz book, The Fold?)  Folding, unfolding, and fourfolds are ubiquitous archetypal tropes. This is both a stumbling block and strength of the work. Harman admits that TQO may seem too systematic, but he also remains in thrall to the genius of his particular system. As in the case of his discussion of metaphysics, we might find him insufficiently urbane here. I do think the system is productive beyond what anyone has imagined, with the exception of Ian Bogost who has suggested that TQO is a magnum opus in a deceptively small package. But TQO only opens up, for us, if we can overcome our uneasiness with Harman’s sweeping gestures. If this is a conception of “the world,” then it must also be a limited view of the world as a sensual object, and this comment (admittedly), a limited view of TQO as sensual object.

I will now offer a paean to TQO using the text as a heuristic scheme. Let me begin with a very brief defense of the text as a sensual object (SO).  If a sensual object is not identical to its qualities, and these qualities emerge over time, then TQO cannot be reduced to its initial bifurcated reception—caught up in a “political” struggle, praised by friends and snubbed by enemies of Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Whether or not the book ultimately deserves praise or blame, I would like to see future evaluations (in bars and such) linked more closely to the work’s particular qualities.

Let’s imagine my opening fantasy of stumbling blockheads as a reference to one set of TQO sensual qualities (SQ).  Now, let me balance these with some readily accessible points of praise for the work. TQO has been enthusiastically received by scholars and artists in various fields, and has invited them to explore Harman’s Tool Being, and Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For this reason, I think TQO is a relevant and successful work of philosophy (as love of wisdom rather than intellectual sparing). Particularly productive have been ecological applications, where TQO dovetails beautifully with Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects,” for example. TQO is obviously relevant to information technology, media studies, and the big questions of AI. Harman’s ontography also plays well with “carpentry,” as a coherent and fruitful, object-oriented aesthetic, as well as an allusion to real art as a hands-on mode of discovery. (See Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology.)  Though political connections may be less obvious, TQO could productively be deployed to understand various forms of systemic discrimination and the technologies through which prejudices are iterated and dispelled.  I also think TQO could be influential on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Although TQO isn’t Heidegger, it is psychology.  The sciences and social sciences may come to understand and appreciate the value of Harman’s philosophical model, though its potential in this context might be in a cultural trade-off relationship with its rhetorical potential to critique scientific discourse.

Going back to my fictitious anthropologist, I propose that the real TQO is a mandala, in the sense of a representation that contains and affects the world. Alternatively TQO is Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and also the Upanishads (which Schopenhauer intuited before reading the Upanishads).  Yes, these are wildly speculative metaphors, but no one cannot access the real object (RO) directly, because it categorically withdraws.  On a more serious note, Harman comes very close to illustrating that objects enfold the world, just as the world enfolds objects (and, we can assume, worlds enfold worlds). Such inversions are key topoi of folding as an archetypal figure, and reflecting on the archetype may be an eidetic approach to TQO as a real object. If we read the fourfold as an iterated, open structure, we may see a wildly productive concept withdrawn even from Harman (Harman would agree). Perhaps this is not Harman, but to the extent that Harman invokes Heidegger, Husserl, and Leibniz . . . TQO also enfolds the dizzying heights and depths of philosophical thought broadly distributed over time and space.

What about real qualities? While an object is depthless in its withdrawal, TQO invites us to imagine the real object as an infinite set of real qualities (RQ), also real objects with relations. Qualities, both sensual and real, are also objects in Harman’s scheme (though real objects can only relate to sensual objects). I don’t mean to confuse matters or flip the infinite into mystical monism here. The discourse of objects assumes more than one, critics will hasten to point out, and that argument is far from settled.  I’ve never been invested in partisan politics.  Nevertheless I share  Bogost’s opinion that The Quadruple Object can function as a relatively small opening into a much more complex analysis.

Coming soon to Environmental Critique—comments on Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy and the strangeness of ecology.

Image Credit:  SAH Blog, Northern India: The Golden Triangle

[i] Slavoj Zizek interrupts them.

[ii] Please advise of a better or better-known short hand—I’m beginning to think that enunciation is the first stumbling block.


Filed under Objects, OOO

Ecological Imaginings

Ecological Imaginings: Aztec Human Sacrifice, Photographic Objects, and Future Simulations
Tuesday, February 11, 6:00-8:00 PM
DePaul University Art Museum
935 W. Fullerton Ave.
The DePaul Institute for Nature & Culture presents a visually rich, interdisciplinary panel featuring three unique perspectives on relationships among images, ecologies, and various types of networks. The panel themes range from Aztec sacrifice, through contemporary photography and philosophy, to neuroscience and future landscape simulations.
Why did the Aztec earth need to eat human blood and excrement to survive?  How do photographs work to both reveal and hide things; can we say photos themselves have their own, distinctive creative agency?  How do images help change people’s minds about the environment, convincing them of the importance of green spaces?  Come and find out.
The evening will also include plenty of time for discussion to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue and student engagement.  The Public, Faculty and Students from all disciplines and interests are invited and encouraged to attend this perspective-broadening evening.
Three presentations will be followed by discussion: 
1. Kay Read, Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, Ecologically Picturing Human Sacrifice: The first presentation relates human sacrifice in pre-Hispanic, Nahua (Aztec) culture to the concept of “trophic webs” (ecological webs of sustenance).  By briefly examining pictographic manuscripts and selected Mesoamerican agricultural practices, the presenter explores how an approach centered in materiality helps us understand why human sacrifice provided “food” in light of those trophic webs, and asks how these explorations might help us think through our own troubled relationships with the natural world.
2. Randy Honold, Assistant Dean of LAS and Instructor, Department of Philosophy, Photographing Objects:  The second talk reflects on photography within the context of speculative realism and the intrigue of the photograph as object, focusing on the presenter’s own photographs.  Among the philosophical/aesthetic topics of the presentation are 1) the relationship of “the photograph” to the history of photography; 2) a consideration of the hybrid “nature” of photography; and 3) the mysterious manner in which photographs both reveal and conceal their objects. The images in this talk make visible the complexity of ever unfolding ecosystems of objects.
3. Christine Skolnik, Department of Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse, Imagined Ecofutures:  Employing a critical approach rooted in “realist magic,” the third paper reviews recent findings in the neuroscience of imagining the future within the context of landscape simulation The presenter argues for acknowledging the importance of the self in the process of imagining the future, and discusses images from the successful Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP) as a case study.
Presenter Information:
Kay Almere Read, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies (DePaul University), holds degrees in Art (University of Illinois, 1969), Religious Studies (University of Colorado, 1982); and History of Religions (University of Chicago, 1983, 1991).  She researches Mesoamerican cosmology, mythology, imagery, time, sacrifice, ethics and the interface of religion, nature and culture.  She has authored numerous articles and books, including Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos (1998), and periodically posts drawings on the Institute for Nature and Culture’s blog at EnvironmentalCritique.wordpress.com.
Christine Skolnik is an adjunct professor in DePaul’s Department of Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse and a faculty advisor to the Institute for Nature & Culture.  She holds a PhD in English (Rhetoric) from Penn State and a recent MA in Urban Sustainability.  She teaches courses in environmental writing and rhetoric as well as technical/professional writing.  Her research interests include sustainability, rhetorical theory, psychology, and neuroscience.  She is currently a contributing co-editor of the popular DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture blog, Environmental Critique.
Randy Honold is currently compiling a set of photographs that translate ideas of ecology and object-oriented ontology, teaching environmental philosophy, and blogging at DylarAddict.wordpress.com and EnvironmentalCritique.wordpress.com. 
This event is open to the public.  Parking is available at the Sheffield Parking Facility located at 2335 N. Sheffield Ave. and the Clifton Parking Deck at 2330 N. Clifton Ave.  For more information, contact Randy Honold at rhonold@depaul.edu, (773) 325-4928

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Filed under Art, Humanities and Ecology, Nature, Objects, OOO, Uncategorized, Urban Ecology

Rhetoric and Magic in the Anthropocene: A Variation

Below is a comment on Tim Morton’s Realist Magic available on Open Humanities Press, and recently published in paperback.  For a review see a previous Environmental Critique post by Rick Elmore, “Adventures in Realist Magic” (6.20.13).  (WordPress link functions not cooperating in this endeavor.)  I highly recommend the paperback to scholars who want to grasp the material more firmly and really work with it.


Timothy Morton’s critique of modern causality in Realist Magic is in some sense a fulfillment of an unspoken promise in the earlier works.  It reveals the fragile “man” behind the curtain of  the normal science that underwrites consumer capitalism, and it synthesizes Morton’s aesthetic and ecological investments in a manner that avid readers will find particularly satisfying.  While it is commonplace to critique the scientific establishment in the name of ecology, much current criticism fails to grasp the elusiveness of the empirical method as a hyperobject that confounds conventional analyses.  Morton’s thesis that causality is aesthetic braves the complexities.  It also comes to the rescue of sleeping Beauty and the dwarfed Humanities (to confound and confuse narratives even further).


In this comment I focus on Morton’s stunningly simple inversion of the rhetorical canons.  The five canons, often used to describe the writing process, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  In Realist Magic Morton privileges delivery, arguing that the other canons, as aesthetic moments, follow (in reverse order) from delivery.  Indeed, the work performs this thesis, beginning with the opening of Realist Magic and Morton’s sound track of PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.  The melancholy 90’s mix sets the tone for the work at hand, attunes us to Morton’s melancholy, and foregrounds relationships between affect and cognition within the context of causality.

Linking the rhetorical canons and causality is not so radical given the dominance of the canons as tools of thought in the pre-modern era, and the likelihood that the empirical method was derived from these rhetorical habits.  However the reversal of order and focus on delivery, as opposed to invention, are very—Morton.  As I suggest above, the inversion also dovetails with affect theory, if delivery follows sense of audience and sense of audience follows affect (attachment), as outlined, for example, in Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself.  I particularly appreciate Morton’s references to sound throughout the text.  Sound is an important element of rhetoric (which I think is categorically affective), not only because tone is always constructive of meaning, self, and relationships, but because internalized qualities of rhythm and harmony pervade all rhetorical performances including Morton’s text.  This emphasis on sound is performed by the cadences of Morton’s well-known authorial voices, articulated through his prose, and in the echoes of his public and new-media selves.  Morton’s recursive style is also punctuated by sharp images, including (my favorite) clown faces crowding the picture frame.


Circling inelegantly back to rhetoric, aesthetic and affective qualities of causality are evident not only in the rhetorical canons, but also in the Classical Stases, which are the stages of an argument or deliberation.  The conventional order (stages) of Stases arguments (“stasis” is the singular) are fact, definition, cause and effect, evaluation, and policy/procedure, or what I might here modulate into “practice.”  (This is one of many versions of the Stases, btw.)  Arguments about causality are crucial to conventional processes of deliberation because they are the presumed basis of value judgments and practical procedures, but they are relevant to the discussion at hand because, as arguments, they have an affective quality.  A good deal of contemporary critical and rhetorical theory  (not to mention neuroscience) has proposed that cause and effect follow value judgments, which follow practice as habit.  To the extent that all of these arguments are aesthetic/affective, not only sound and sight, but various other senses (external and internalized), determine our perceptions of causality.  Following Morton, rhetoricians might further explore an inversion of the Stases.  We might ask what aesthetically and affectively warrants practice and work back through value, cause and effect (or effect and cause), and definition, to fact. 

Such a reverse practice, a rhetrico-hermeneutic moonwalk if you will, could be applied to virtually any socio-cultural situation or text.  Ecological restoration, for example, a major concern of the Institute for Nature & Culture which sponsors Environmental Critique, could be encountered as an aesthetic problem, which derives its ethical means and meanings from beauty, writ large.


On the simplest level Realist Magic reminds us that causes are infinitely complex and our instrumental understanding of them is always an interpretation.  The book is full of rhetorical magic performed, as Morton advises, right before our eyes.  While the old alchemists strived to turn dross into gold, Morton merely vanishes matter, and thus the usual “substance” of both capital and science.  He does not dissolve the real into the ideal however.  Rather he separates the real from the material, redirecting our attention to affect, the limitations that science places on our affective experience, and the capacity of art to reveal and realign our priorities.


Image titles, artists, and sources in the order they appear:

Installation 1 by Gregory Euclide:



Field of Flowers by David Friedman:


Self-portrait with Masks by James Ensor:


The Big Bang by David Friedman:


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E.O. Wilson, Climate Change, and OOO (Part One)

by Randall Honold

A group of us DePaul folks and friends got together recently to talk about E.O. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. We were scientists, theologians, rhetoricians, students, philosophers, administrators, activists, and more than one identity per body. Over the course of a respectful but not dispassionate ninety minutes, conversation turned from Wilson’s debate with evolutionary theorists who continue to champion inclusive fitness (Wilson now promotes group selection), his dismissal of the relevance of religion and philosophy, and whether his call for an enlightened cosmopolitanism will lead us to a serious confrontation with the threats of climate change.

I had planned to just shut up and listen because I really wanted to hear what others were thinking. I managed this pretty well until about an hour in when I blurted out something like, “The problem with Wilson is he’s an unrepentant epistemologist!” I then blabbed on for a good minute about how object-oriented ontology offers a better framework for understanding evolution and the challenges of climate change. As soon as I stopped yakking and went back to nibbling my cookie two questions arose from the vapors in my skull: Come on, who are you to say anything at all about Wilson’s work? And, are you drunk on OOO Kool-Aid?

After the session Christine Skolnik asked if I would write up a bit more about what I meant by my outburst. It was obvious, alas, that I had made little sense.

In prepping my thoughts the first thing I wanted to do was go back to Wilson’s book to see where I could have gotten such an idea that he was committed to a theory of knowledge before anything else. And, of course, there it was, in what I always tell students to pay the most attention to in a text of ideas: the first paragraph. And in this instance, the first sentence!

“There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition.” (italics mine)

Okay, so now I didn’t feel so ant-like in relation to Wilson. (His career is based on studying ants. I have more than one neuron, dammit!) He states straightaway that knowledge is his game and knowing the human condition is its object. So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t self-knowledge been, in some sense, the project of Western culture since Plato reported on the Oracle at Delphi? Isn’t coming to know ourselves once and for all an admirable goal for Homo sapiens? And why not take on climate change while we’re at it? I have some thoughts about why Wilson’s – or any other – epistemologically-oriented project can’t deliver these aims, based on my understanding of object-oriented ontology, or OOO.

Behind Wilson’s book-opening dictum is the assumption that the only reliable method by which we can know what’s what is science. Especially evolutionary biology. All other forms of knowing have been or are on the way to being reduced to this fundamental method, in his view. By explaining all of human behavior (and self-knowledge) in terms of multilevel selective pressures, Wilson lays the groundwork for what he thinks is a fool-proof method to employ as we face existential pressures, such as climate change. In doing this he ultimately prioritizes the human condition over all others, in my view. He might dispute this, given his high praise for co-evolution and advocacy for biodiversity protection. But ultimately it’s humanity that understands evolution and itself as the crowning achievement of it. It’s humanity that has caused the current spate of climate change and must deal with this if it wants to survive in some desirable fashion. I want to sidestep the question of whether or not Wilson’s is a good or bad theory of knowledge. Instead I want to focus on what happens to the force of Wilson’s arguments insofar as they rest on an epistemology. I want to suggest that his one-way street of epistemology becomes a cul-de-sac, always taking him back to the frustrating place he’s trying to escape from – the world of individual objects that resist being brought under one rational yoke.

Some humanists (well, I, at least) find it not that unusual but nevertheless still ironic that scientists such as Wilson throw their lot in with the type of science that’s all about producing unassailable truth. Science as an open-ended project of revealing the larger context of knowledge-creation gets short shrift. The former becomes a “scientism” that forgets it is composed of values, politics, history, egos, and the non/never living. Scientism plays the same role as any other “ism,” undermining all objects and reducing ontology to epistemology. The latter activity seeks to produce knowledge but with an openness to the question of “why are we looking into this rather than that?” (Bruno Latour judges these “matters of concern” more relevant to scientistic “matters of fact.”) In our world of anthropogenic climate change fact-based scientism alone isn’t cutting it. Knowledge isn’t leading to action. We can’t get fully under, on top of, or outside of climate change to conceptualize it adequately. This, despite Wilson’s “beautiful soul” aspirations found in the final chapter of the book:

“…by any conceivable standard, humanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and – who can say? – perhaps the galaxy.” (p. 288)

Break out the powdered wigs and strudel, Goethe and Hegel have time-warped to Cambridge, MA! How can we not solve the riddle of the human condition – and bonus problem of climate change – if we truly, deeply understand that this is just so? Ain’t no stopping us now (as long as we commit not only to evolutionary science but to human knowing as the sine qua non of all objects)! The scientific brain wasn’t designed to avoid all self-destruction – we see that now – but let’s double down on it going forward anyway.

What would an OOO critique of Wilson look like, then? What alternative, maybe better, understandings of evolution and climate change could OOO give us?

I’ll return in about week with some thoughts on this.

Image Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-the-social-conquest-of-earth-by-edward-o-wilson/2012/04/13/gIQAvO7kFT_story.html

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Filed under Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology, Nature, Objects, OOO, Uncategorized, Urban Ecology

Babooon Metaphysics

by Christine Skolnik

Splashing around lately in object-oriented philosophy I’m reminded of Cheney and Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics.  Object-oriented ecology is inspired by object-oriented philosophy and, more specifically, object-oriented ontology (O3), which attempt to view objects as mere objects (in the superlative sense), radically outside of ourselves and our perceptual apparatus.  O3 also strives to understand how objects interact with other objects apart from our perceptions of and interactions with them, and apart from the particular meaning, significance, or usefulness they hold for humanity.[1]

Object-oriented ecology might be an antidote for both old-school, resource-greedy attitudes toward nature and self-negating, yet self-absorbed, deep ecology.  Without going into unnecessary detail, old-school views of nature privilege the human being as a self-justified, imperious subject wielding wondrous technologies in order to extract value from the environment.  Deep ecology, conversely, is invested in de-centering the human, though its very objections and abjections can be interpreted as a form of narcissism.  The guilt and shame of deep ecology may arise from a sense of superiority: the responsibilities of a unique subject among common objects.  In either case it does not follow that only human beings can solve the problem.  Shouldn’t the mess we’ve made serve as a proof of our basic incompetence as environmental stewards?

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