Sunday, 27 September 2009

Chasm, Chora and Firewall: On the Boundaries Between Objects

I finally ordered an Interlibrary copy of Guerrilla Metaphysics last week and it is making for some thought-provoking and enjoyable reading on my journeys into work each day. Indeed my odyssey into Object Oriented Ontology and Harman’s philosophical oeuvre is proving to be one of those transformative intellectual journeys that necessitates a re-thinking of numerous cherished beliefs, concepts and theories. There is simply enough in OOO that I agree with, and perhaps on a gut or pre-conscious level simply feel drawn towards, that I am having to reassess the viability of some older philosophical friends and their realist frameworks rather carefully. Hopefully, I will have something useful to contribute as I attempt to translate Harman’s work in relation to my own metaphysical baggage.

One of my current points of reflection concerns the manner in which objects are separated and torn apart in Harman’s metaphysic, both from one another and internally. That is, while there exists a plenum of objects, extending to infinite scales above and below our immediate perceptual horizons, the contact between these objects is intermittent, vicariously enabled and, to put it another way, always across a gap. Now, this draws forth associations for me with a concept that has been revisited and rather overused, if not wholly abused, in recent decades by Continental philosophy, namely, the Platonic space and place of mediation: chora. Is this association a reasonable one?

As someone who frequently falls back on visualizing metaphysical concepts through diagrams, images and pictures, the space between objects in OOO appears in my mind’s eye as a form of chasm - a formidable gap that can only be bridged/crossed through the mediation of a third party. Now, this particular metaphor/concept of the chasm seems to cohere very closely with the language used to identify the chora in the writings of several Continental philosophers. Indeed I seem to remember reading of Heidegger making etymological mileage of links between chora and chaos (or khainö) as meaning “to yawn” or something that “opens wide”. I am not sure precisely where I can go with this, or even if it is viable (again, I am not confident or familiar enough with Harman’s corpus of material yet), but there do seem to be parts of OOO that warrant amplification and elaboration. If the gap between objects is the space of translation, does this not arguably exhibit many of the maternal traits frequently attributed to the chora? Hopefully this isn’t a simple shoehorning exercise on my part. I remember when I was an undergraduate when I had what I thought was a metaphysical epiphany. Specifically I thought that an account of boundaries and boundary conditions could be a fruitful route towards a theory of reality. I won’t dwell on why I thought this, suffice it to say it was not an idea that I pursued systematically at the time or thereafter. However, I did retain an interest in boundaries – notably ontological ones – to the degree that I still become very attentive when they are theorised in new ways and/or with a new language. Of all Harman’s ideas, the manner in which objects withdraw from one another is particularly interesting in this regard. Does one need to theorise the gap/space between objects - if such there is - in terms of a boundary (e.g. chora/chasm)? But, more significantly, for me at least, how does this relate to Harman’s other intriguing boundary concept: the “firewall”, the demarcation point between objects, as well the term for the internal boundaries between objects and their parts. If I am to write something about Harman’s OOO in the near future, it is the firewall that has me suitably “fired up”, that and the theorisation of the nature of the gaps between objects (again, if such there are).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Nappies, Sleep and Reading

I'm currently in preparation mode for the new academic year and busy writing, updating and adapting module handbooks and course content for my institution's VLE, so ... not much time for reading books and research. I'm now looking upon July and early August as a 'Golden Age' of renewed research interest and intensive reading, an age which now seems rather distant. Indeed that distance seems to have increased dramatically with the arrival of my second child four weeks ago. Sleep deprivation is now very much the order of the day, and, while this may be conducive with altered states of consciousness, it isn't helping me analyse where I stand on such topics as relations in Object-Oriented Ontology or correlationism and Speculative Realism.

I was always impressed by academics who seemed to balance children and research, and this was replaced by simple awe when I had my first child; carefully preserved gaps for research were eaten up by the need and demand for nappy changes (likely to make it to the top of my Harmanian and Latourian inspired lists of objects and actors), food, comfort and various other kinds of attention; moreover, one never seems to have quite enough sleep. The sensation of sleep walking through some lectures springs to mind, and I would certainly like to know the secrets of any academics who have managed to maintain philosophical form and quality through the early years of parenting. I return again, at this point, to Graham's reflections on sleep:

The highly refreshing character of good sleep has the metaphysical significance of freeing us from the various trivial encrustations of relation in which we become enmeshed. It restores us for a time to the inner sanctum of our essence, subtracting all surface ornament. Reversing the usual association of higher organisms with greater wakefulness, it might be the case that higher entities are higher precisely through their greater capacity to sleep: ascending from insects through dolphins, humans, sages, angels, or God.

Currently, this feels more reasonable than it did on my first reading (and I assume that by higher entities, Graham is not deploying an ontological hierarchy). I am certainly feeling ensnared by "trivial encrustations" and also less than human some of the time. This also brings me to the point of what I am finding time to read at the moment. Despite having a large pile of books staring at me in an accusatory fashion, and demanding to be read, I seem to be re-reading Prince of Networks. This is thankfully proving quite productive, the activity of revisiting many of the topics and arguments is a valuable reminder of just how much does not stick on first reading; a point that Graham is well aware of and takes time to remind us. Usefully I am now reading everything through the lens of my initial responses and a few weeks of half-formed questions, ruminations and speculation. This should, I hope, be the impetus - despite relational encrustations - to form some more focused thoughts. Minimally, though, the Harman/Latour language has percolated up through my consciousness to the point that I am thinking about nappies and other objects in terms of actants (sad, I know).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Review of Tool-Being and Prince of Networks

There is a brilliant review and analysis of Harman's Tool-Being and Prince of Networks over at Immanence. In many ways Immanence has similar concerns about Harman's metaphysic as I have and seems to be at a similar point in reading and thinking about his work; plus we both seem to be similarly impressed and attracted (perhaps that should be 'lured', but I haven't acquired Guerrilla Metaphysics yet (pricey), so can't say) by Harman's writing. I may use Immanence's posts as a leaping off point for my own first review of Harman's work in the next few days, although it is taking a little thinking through. I clearly want to have my cake (object) and eat (relate) to it too; more specifically, I want to have my OOO while keeping process and relationism in play in a manner that OOO doesn't seemingly permit.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Women Philosophers and Speculative Realism

I'm copying some of this material from my post on Paul Ennis' anotherheideggerblog. To be honest, I hadn't thought that I would be writing about gender issues and speculative realism quite so quickly. I seem to have spent the last fifteen years or so of my life worrying about similar concerns. Starting with my readings prior to university, moving through my undergraduate, masters and doctoral research commitments and interests, up to and including nearly all my conference papers and publications, feminist and gender theory seems to have been a constant in my life. This, admittedly, is probably an unusual state of affairs for a male academic, but it grounds a lot of what, for me, philosophy is about (i.e. theorizing the world, changing the world, making a difference). That said, though, I hadn't anticipated the need to render this explicit quite so quickly, particularly as I am in assimilation and research mode with regard to SR and OOO (a rather steep reading and learning curve). Anyway, to the point at hand, what is one to make of the absence of women philosophers from SR and OOO?

(1) There are simply far fewer women in philosophy than men and, therefore, one shouldn’t be too surprised at their absence from Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology. See, for example: Statistically, given the youth of SR/OOO, one shouldn’t be to shocked by the absence of women from the movement. But please don’t let us ignore Isabelle Stengers who is listed under the faculty for Speculative Heresy.

(2) A gender point about the discipline of metaphysics is important. Namely, metaphysics is frequently viewed as a self-evident danger zone or no go area for feminist philosophers (although not necessarily all women philosophers), primarily because of its associations with essentialism and all of the patriarchal baggage that has gone along with this in the past, i.e. the attribution of roles and capacities to an essence is a remarkably powerful way of legitimating a particular social and political state of affairs. The linkages between SR/OOO and metaphysics are, I think, fairly clear, and this may serve as a partial explanation of why SR/OOO is unpalatable to women philosophers. That said, though, there are women philosophers who are concerned with thinking metaphysics otherwise (Christine Battersby's The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity is a good example)

(3) There is also an important point about women in the academy/HE and what they need to do to succeed that men don't. That is, there is a quite a lot of socio-cultural and institutional pressure on women philosophers to conform with certain philosophical standards in order to get an academic post, tenure, publications etc. that aren’t present to the same degree for men. Basically women may need, and/or may minimally simply believe of feel, that they must be quite conservative in their philosophical interests in order to be taken seriously and succeed academically. Next contrast this required or perceived conservatism with Speculative realism. It seems to me that SR and OOO are attempting to rock the philosophical boat (or get out of it completely), and this may be a rather a risky endeavour for women who until very recently weren’t even allowed passage on board. Signing up to a new philosophical movement may be a risky business for many women.

(4) However, in response to point (3), there are probably a number of women philosophers who could be classed as belonging to the SR/OOO fold and/or would be sympathetic to the writings and ideas if exposed to them. Some of the more philosophically based ecofeminists might count, I am thinking of Val Plumwood particularly here. There are also plenty of feminist philosophers attempting to rethink matter, materiality, embodiment, space and time in a manner that is conducive with SR or OOO. Figures such as Elizabeth Grosz and Donna Haraway might be notable here.

Clearly there may be an advertising or PR problem with regard to the absence of women from SR and OOO and - in a Latourian sense - there is a need for an actor such as SR/OOO to make alliances in order to survive, grow and prosper. We may just need to network better - and if you read any material by cyberfeminists such as Sadie Plant, or some of the religious feminists that I write about, you may subscribe to the view that this is what women may do rather better than men.

Monday, 7 September 2009

OOO, Speculative Realism and Religion: some initial comments

It seems par for the course that most new schools of philosophy or philosophical movements eventually come under the scrutiny of theologians or philosophers of religion, typically either with the aim of hermeneutically mining them for resources, or else pursuing some form of critique or deconstruction because of their perceived danger or – perhaps more charitably – incoherence. So, my question is this, what is the market value of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology qua theological resources? I don’t expect to provide any quick answers to this question, although I will immediately express a hope and gut feeling that their theological currency will be low. Anticipating what I will develop in later posts, I will simply state that any metaphysical framework that jettisons ontological hierarchies is unlikely to be palatable to most theologies and/or monotheistic philosophies of religion. The flattening of the ontological terrain that is integral to OOO would seem to have no clear place for the ontologically super-charged deity of classical theism or indeed any similar beings. Even construed as some ϋber-object, God would be no more ontologically special than a coffee cup or a neutrino. The most provocative statement that Graham Harman makes in this regard is in Prince of Networks (2009: 214), wherein he notes that:

If someone took the gamble of an object-oriented theology, the omniscient God of monotheism might be abandoned in favor of something resembling Cthulhu, the
sleeping monstrosity of H.P. Lovecraft.
Now, while I am rather drawn to Graham’s challenge, I must simply state that he is probably correct. OOO cannot be reconciled with monotheistic deities as they stand; and, more than this, it probably cannot be reconciled with the theologies and philosophies of any of the major religious denominations or traditions of the world. Any wedding of OOO and theology would, I contend, have to take place within a rather special sacred space and would likely (1) be "weird" - prompting me to play with the term 'weird theology' alongside Graham’s term ‘weird realism’ - and/or (2) require a shotgun loaded with some exotic conceptual buckshot.

If one wishes to find any easy alliances between OOO and religion, one probably needs to consult the more ontologically democratic worldviews of animists (many of which can be interpreted in a broadly panpsychist terms), or else some forms of pantheism. However, I suspect that even with pantheists, including those of the process theological varieties, the subsequent alliance (or translation) would be rather odd and unpalatable. The pantheist deity would likely be, in Latourian parlance, a black box (and one could quite reasonably ask whether there are more of them, i.e. Gods/boxes all the way up); and, while this could lend itself to an interesting re-thinking of natural theology, the degree of fit would be questionable. Graham addresses some of his concerns with panpsychism in Prince of Networks (212-214) and I think that he hits the mark when he says that he doesn’t have too much too worry about anymore (apparently he had concerns in Guerrilla Metaphysics). OOO can I suspect be a useful complement to a panpsychism. He does, though, have worries about the pan- aspect of panpsychism because not all entities can have psychic life, only real objects. I am still thinking through some of these points viz. Graham’s metaphysic, but I did immediately think that animism might be suitably different to permit an interesting dialogue. Their may be an article here examining the crossover and possible alliances between Graham Harman’s OOO and Graham Harvey’s new animism, which usefully unpacks the worldviews of a numbers of indigenous peoples and their relations with other-than-human-persons. But nothing on this before I get a better grasp of OOO. Interestingly, though, Graham Harvey reads Latour too.

More of this later, at the moment I think the religious value of OOO is fairly limited and clear (either a distinctly weird theology or metaphysical underpinning for animism), while Speculative Realism is too diverse to offer useful comments on. Meillasoux clearly has some views about God that warrant unpacking.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Definitions and Parameters

Graham Harman has made a valuable attempt at deploying some boundaries around Object Oriented Ontology here and also offers some useful comments on the relationship of OOO with Speculative Realism.

In order to let people know who is welcome inside this smaler tent within the larger tent of S.R., I would offer the following preliminary standards for what counts as an OOO in my sense and presumably Levi’s:
1. The human-world relation loses priority. All
relations are on exactly the same ontological footing.
2. Relations are inherently transformations, translations, or distortions. No model of a thing can replace that thing, and hence truth cannot be correspondence: one reality, but many truths.
3. Objects come in all different sizes. No layer of reality has privilege over any other.
He clarifies point 3 here.

So, I would probably change point 3 to something like: “Individual entities are the basic reality in the cosmos.” This would suitably include both Aristotle and Leibniz while excluding such interesting but rather different thinkers as, say, Deleuze and Simondon, who are obviously by no means OOO figures, whereas Latour certainly is. (And Whitehead too, I would say.)

Basically, I reckon I'm in with the OOO crowd; although I have a range of affinities with Bergson, Deleuze, DeLanda, Nietzsche and some others that need to be resolved and unpacked over the coming months.

Friday, 4 September 2009


This blog is an effort to articulate some of my developing metaphysical musings. Biographically, my academic background straddles both the study of religions (primarily new religious movements, nature religions) and philosophy (primarily metaphysics, and ecological and existentialist philosophies), albeit frequently incorporating a range of gender theoretical perspectives and feminist commitments too. Most of my teaching career has focused on delivering courses in religious studies, but I have in the last four years been able to return to my first love, namely philosophy. This blog has largely been prompted by a recent period of philosophical research and renewal when I discovered Speculative Realism (SR), Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and such figures a Graham Harman, Bruno Latour and Levi Bryant. I have always identified myself as a fervent realist, and an advocate of immanence, but attaching precise labels or indeed a brand name to these has always been a complex endeavour. Naive realism, critical realism and naturalism have never seemed quite right to me; besides, who would want to describe themselves as naive? However, metaphysical naturalism, process philosophy and in my case process thealogy have never been wholly appropriate either. Currently I am feeling highly motivated by Speculative Realism, although the task of locating myself within this new terrain is likely to take some time.

I have titled the blog Pagan Metaphysics not out of some commitment to (re-)constructing a metaphysic that would be acceptable to contemporary Pagans (of whatever tradition or association), although there may be something of interest here to a few of them; neither do I aim to form links with any specific philosophical school of the past that might be termed pagan, as this would be an umbrella capable of covering much of western and non-western philosophy. Rather, I use the term loosely to mark out a general opposition to (1) onto-theology, (2) the bulk of Anglo-American philosophy of religion (which tends to be Christian in its core concepts and pre-occupations) and (3) civil/urban metaphysics. In solidarity with OOO (and parts of Speculative Realism), I am interested in dissolving the human-world divide and in Meillasoux’s words getting back to the ‘great outdoors’. The pagan simply seems to be a useful prefix to oppose the dominant analytic and continental attitude to realist metaphysics, which tends to reduce it to a correlate of the human and urban. Undoubtedly this is a point that I will return to later.