Friday, 21 February 2014

Morton's Hyperobjects and Pluralism

It occurred to me yesterday after reading Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects just what a postmodernist text it is in terms of style and construction.  It's really no different in how it's put together from the old 'all the world's a text' school of culture studies bricolage.  Bits and pieces of pop science mixed with every kind of cultural artefact (and, in all fairness, some genuinely earnest political musings) all jumbled together and loosely assembled with the help of some all too chunkily chopped and, for my tastes, rather undercooked object-oriented philosophy (garnished with wilted affectations of scientific realism...).  A thought salad, if you will.

It's a writing style that presupposes a flat ontology – i.e. a monism – i.e. a situation where a single vocabulary, a single style of speech, a single mode of assembly suffices to address any kind of thing wheresoever, whensoever, howsoever, whatsoever.  Heterogeneity without plurality.

It matters little in practice whether this monistic plane is discourse, object, language, network...  The world becomes a frozen lake across which the bricoleur glides, slides or tumbles, depending on his skill.  The relational labour required to forge any particular connection seems minimal, almost inconsequential – it is enough that the words are on the same page, conjoined by puns.

This can be a very exciting way of moving around, no doubt, but, read in book-length, it strikes me as shallow, superficial and reductive.  To address climate change, Dr Who, early 1990s British indie bands, aboriginal art, nuclear waste, Aristotle and so on all in the same mode of address, all in the same tone of voice, the same frenzied, impatient blur of the hyperactive scholar-magpie – it makes for an interesting read but ultimately an unrewarding one.  And it's difficult to swallow the dogmatically asserted 'realism' (proclaimed, never argued) when there is so little attentiveness to the specificities of all these things, when their bumps, grooves and all manner of details are smoothed over in such dramatic fashion.

It is as though the materials themselves offered no resistance, objection or direction to how they are spoken, stretched, compressed, displayed; they impose no obligation on the articulator as to the way in which they must be articulated.

This, it seems to me, is the importance of the pluralist project, philosophically (and realistically) speaking: to compel attention to the specific ways in which different things must be addressed in order to be properly articulated in their own terms.  This is what OOO, etc. can never do because it is essentially monist: there is one way of being and all further distinctions are subcategories of that one mode.

In establishing a 'universal equivalence' between all things (everything equally an object) it makes everything articulable all-together with a minimum of complication.  And this is not without value but nor is it innocent.

One interesting thing with Latour's modes project is that [net] permits this scholar-magpie approach since it self-consciously disregards the nuances of individual forms of being in order to string together as many relations (and thus to forge the thickest of descriptions) as quickly, easily and simplistically as possible.  So, the fast, loose thrill-ride of the monist is seemingly permitted but it is relativised, deprived of its innocence – it compels a choice, a decision to be made: why this mode, why this movement, why not another?  In other words, the very partiality of the pluralised network mode demands passing by the way of another mode [pre] (and from there to any number of others); plurality demands decision and hence responsibility.

And this, I think, leads to a more convincing 'realism' than that of Morton et al., for whom this becomes little more than a badge to pin to one's lapel and strut around, chest puffed out – proud.  That is a good name for it: proud realism, a realism of pride.  Science, in this 'realism,' becomes not so much a process that is implicated in any event of thinking the worlds around us in particularly productive ways but simply an honoured and honorific background process that gifts us lists of objects that we are entitled, since they are scientifically certified, to assert as 'out there, whether you like it or not.'  Science is a research and certification process: if it's on the list we can let it into our ontologies without another thought.  ('And if you're not on the list you're not coming in!' – for doormen-realists this is the main point: the authority to refuse entry.)

Thus, with Morton, we can stand there in the rain, feeling it falling on our head and imagine the vast, sublime, oceanic climate system whirring and whooshing over our head and think 'climate change is raining on my head' (he actually writes this) and think that this is a meaningful sentence, in all disconnection and transcendence from the scientific institutions that stabilise climate and climate change as objects of cognition.  And then we can denounce those who would insist that dynamic, ongoing scientific processes are essentially implicated in this event, in this actual occasion as lava lampy relationalists.

There's nothing more lava lampy than the manic postmodern stylings of cultural studies bricolage – and this is a style that Morton excels at.

To move with [net] is to move laterally; that is, across the frozen lake, traversing the flat ontology.  And we don't need to watch the Winter Olympics to know what stunningly graceful high-velocity ballets this freedom of movement can sometimes produce.  But this is not the only way of moving.  To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.

Pluralism is not an alternative to realism.  It is simply realism without its chest puffed out, showing off.  Pluralism is realism that recognises the multiple paths that any trajectory can follow and the beautiful plumage that can grace any mode of existence.

In that sense there is nothing much to it; it might be counter-intuitive but it's not especially complicated.  Perhaps one day it'll even be common sense.


  1. I've moved away from OOO quite a bit, but it seems to me that this is unfair (though not to Morton):

    "This, it seems to me, is the importance of the pluralist project, philosophically (and realistically) speaking: to compel attention to the specific ways in which different things must be addressed in order to be properly articulated in their own terms. This is what OOO, etc. can never do because it is essentially monist: there is one way of being and all further distinctions are subcategories of that one mode."

    A good OOO analysis would very much resemble an actor-network theory analysis, if not be identical to it. It would have to be attentive to the internal structures and singularities of objects, how they relate to the world around them (as well as what is invisible to them in the world around them), and the relationships between these different substances, machines, or objects (all synonyms for me). This is exactly what I'm trying to do in _Onto-Cartography_. An onto-cartography is a mapping of those different relationships, how they form systems, and what the paths of movement are within these systems. Insofar as each machine/object is only *selectively* open to the world around it (e.g., bats sense the world in terms of sonar and are therefore closed off to wavelengths of color and insurance companies only sense the world in terms of profit/loss) it's also attentive to the sort of pluralism you're calling for and seeks to investigate the fraught conflicts that arise as a result of that selective openness (Uexkull's ethology and Luhmann's accounts of observing systems are hugely important here).

    In connection with all of this I think it's worthwhile to remember Deleuze and Guattari's magic formula: "monism = pluralism". It seems to me that any valid ontology today must be monistic which is to say naturalist and materialist. However, within a naturalism there are a plurality of actors that encounter the world and imbue it with meaning in different ways. Part of understanding an "object" (at least in the register of living and social "objects") involves doing ethology to investigate how that being selectively relates to the world.

    I think there are a couple of problems with object-oriented PHILOSOPHY (OOO and OOP are not the same; Latour, Whitehead, and Bennett are all instances of OOO but not OOP just as both Descartes and Spinoza are rationalists but have different ontologies). First, I think the concept of vicarious causation is incoherent. Second and more importantly, I think the concept of withdrawal creates a night in which all cows are black. If it is true that all objects are withdrawn and that they never touch, then not only are we unable to understand relations but we really can never say anything about other beings but are only ever talking about ourselves. This seems to be the exact opposite of realism.

  2. Hi Levi. Thanks for your comment.

    This post was a bit of a stream of consciousness-type affair so it's a bit sketchy, I'll admit!

    I think the main thing here is two different meanings of plurality: plurality of being and plurality of beings. The pluralism that Latour's arguing for here is both: pluralism of being (i.e. of ways of being) as well a plurality of beings themselves. And to every way of being (or becoming) there is a mode of address, a way of dealing with each kind of thing.

    Hence why I'm suggesting a distinction between plurality and heterogeneity - although that is an idiosyncratic distinction, for sure. The more I say it the less that sounds like a good distinction. (Ah, well that's what blogging's for!)

    I'm perhaps being a bit unfair to OOO/P in my rhetoric here, that's true. But I also made the point that Latour's [net] mode corresponds to the flat ontological way of thinking embodied in OOO (and other philosophies besides). The point, for me, is that a definitely articulated plurality of modes requires a decision to be made as to which mode in which to practice one's engagement with a topic. An indefinitely flat ontology that knows no other way of moving about is never provoked into asking that question.