I want to do two things in this post. First, to explore the idea of ‘ontological vulnerability’ a little, and second, to look at absolute and contingent withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. I want to do this in order to try to get a grasp of Michael’s problems with Harman and Morton’s version of OOO, and to make a start on answering questions about pan-correlationism.
Michael rejects the idea that objects are absolutely withdrawn from one. Instead, Michael suggests that all objects are’ ontically open to one another in such a way as to establish an ‘intimacy’. This would also be the grounds of possibility for the intelligibility of alterity: how could we speak of alterity if things never encountered one another at all? The point is that if objects were absolutely withdrawn they would recede from any point of access whatsoever. In such a world no thing could ever be touched, held, burnt, used, left, ignored, known etc. In a bid to revalorise substantiality in a world seemingly obsessed with flux, we give discover the undiscoverability of the in-itself and remain forever imprisoned within the for-us of our own delusive experiences. Absolute withdrawal is a thesis of absolute autonomy of every substance from every other substance to the point where all and every thing vanishes. But that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world of violence and suffering, of bullets and bombs, of fast food and big screen TVs, of kissing lovers, and 4 year old boys who refuse to let you write blog posts. We live in a world where we’ve gathered a fair bit of knowledge. Hard knowledge garnered from natural science. In other words, it seems that the claim that objects are absolutely withdrawn is false.
As a psychiatric nurse I know that such a claim is false. I use drugs synthesised by psychopharmacologists that, once injected into the flesh, directly do things to the patient’s nervous system. Conversation and phenomenographic accounts of patient experience also relate how this can profoundly alter the way patients couple to their environments. This leads to the enaction of profoundly different worlds. Thinking on such an example is illustrative. I can only do my job because people have had direct if partial access to things. I can only do my job because other things have direct access to still more things. The generation of and radical difference between my experience of an episode of medication administration and my patient’s is only possible because of the specific ways in which we and the things involved in that situation are open to each other. That openness constitutes the kind of intimacy that provides us with experiential evidence of the impossibility of absolute withdrawal. Instead, situations or worlds are produced by the unique ensemble of interoperating operations of uniquely relating substances. Onto-specification is the product of multiple coexisting intimacies, or intermatrices.
We should note here that what I’m calling intermatrices pertain to ‘contact’ between objects. Intermatrices are simply the ensembles that produce effects that we typically call things. Just as for the Stoics,objects are both cause and effect. The point to note is that it is only because of intermatrices that we have access to things at all, and that such interoperability is fundamentally a matter of enaction. That is to say onto-specification is the activity of the ontic co-determination of substances by those substances. There is a sense in which we can say this is an eroticism: things enact worlds by touching each other. As such, absolute withdrawal would constitute an auto-erotic atomism in which touching is mediated via the metaphorical screen as in cyber-sex. In Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost’s expression, the object-oriented ontology is a promiscuous ontology.
So objects/ensembles/etc are able to touch one another only partially but nonetheless directly. This means that something is always going to be absent in their touching, even if that absence is not absolute. Here, the split in an objects identity, the heterogeneous admixture preventing total autonomy, means that their is a porosity to the object’s membrane. The membrane might be thought of as that fuzzy boundary between what remains withdrawn aspect and what is touched-touching. Much like skin, the object’s membrane is porous, permeable, otherwise it would be either fully actual or fully virtual. What this also means is that with any specific object/ensemble the porosity of the membrane will differ. As such, rather than absolute withdrawal across all objects there is a continuum of withdrawal, degrees of absence, a mobility between presence and absence. I will return to this later.
So what is this ontological vulnerability? It is precisely what has been discussed above. Yet as human beings we are a particular kind of thing, and we have put ontological vulnerability into play for other reasons. For us, this kind of vulnerability is part of our facticity. We are the species that is composed of individuals that know that they will die. We are the kind of being that is always exposed to death and which has complex affective and cognitive responses to that awareness. Ernest Becker is among those who has posited that human civilisation is in fact a huge coping mechanism composed of other elaborate coping mechanisms. By identifying with a heroic system, such as religion, the individual attempts to transcend their own mortality, fraught as it is with uncertainty of time and manner of arrival, by being part of ‘something bigger’. Becker joins in that chorus of voices that declare that such means of pretending at immortality, of avoiding death, have been undermined by modernity’s disenchantment of the world. The cultural-subjective nihilism that accompanies the desacralisation of the world by instrumental/administrative reason and the rise of industrial capitalism has eroded the possibility of sustaining our various heroisms. (I have a sense that Heidegger’s being-toward-death is really little more than his attempt to make the absence of heroism into a heroism).
The point here is that we are left without any kind of affective or intellectual defence against our awareness of our mortality and that this is paralysing. For some this means that we put all our efforts into sequestering death (Mellor and Shilling 1993, The sequestration hypothesis: modernity, self-identity, and death), hiding it from view through the operation of a taboo just as under the repressive hypothesis power was supposed to operate an effective taboo on sex. For others (Christopher Lasch) this degenerates humans into narcissists obsessed with youth and beauty, terrified of ageing and any form of commitment whatsoever. It is a fairly familiar story, one we don’t need to completely retrace here. We have always been exposed to death and we have always attempted to attenuate that exposure.
Importantly, ontological vulnerability has been discussed by Judith Butler (Precarious Life; Frames of War) as our corporeal vulnerability to others because of the way our being is constituted by, remains dependent on, and is finally extinguishable by, other corporeally vulnerable beings.Just like with Becker’s hero-systems though, there are those who attempt to make themselves appear invulnerable (Butler identifies the USA and Israel as examples). In trying to be invulnerable these objects are hiding their vulnerability from themselves, turning away from it, and simultaneously increasing their vulnerability. Our lives are precariously interdependent and this exposes us to violence, possibly to death. The logic is similar in Becker, for whom civilisation is a massive system of meaning-production that attempts to give death the appearance of sense, to domesticate it’s dark absoluteness, and to make us feel like we are ontologically invulnerable. In both instances, attempts to evade such vulnerability actually intensifies it by building up defences that can’t do anything but fail.
In the pessimistic understanding of vulnerability we are talking about an exposure to death that renders suffering senseless, arbitrary, our world a dangerously vertiginous swirl of risk. The very fabric of social and institutional life is endangered by the cultural nihilism that sweeps through liquid modernity because death is revealed to be ‘the absolute other, an unimaginable other…an absolute nothing…the end of all perception’ (Bauman, Mortality immortality, and other life strategies). Ontological vulnerability is the threat of a dissolution so complete as to be unthinkable, unimaginable, an horrific alterity that the individual (and increasingly the collective) can’t domesticate. Death is perfectly unthinkable.
Our ontological vulnerability is ultimately rooted in a carnal vulnerability, and this should tell us something about ontological vulnerability in general (although we must be mindful of onto-specificity). First, ontological vulnerability is openness. This openness does not merely point towards the partiality of withdrawal but also points towards the exposure of objects to dissolution. Secondly, in humans (and probably other animals) this dissolution is death. Thirdly, it seems as though the first two claims follow from openness of objects, from the incompleteness of ensembles, their plasticity. Fourth, partial objects mean that all objects are interdependent rather than autonomous. All objects may be agencies that act, but they do so within the constraints of the worlds that are available to them to enact. Fifth, if death is unthinkable then absolute withdrawal is unthinkable. In this way, absolute withdrawal would pose itself as a limit to thinking, to what could be thought. It could be countered that this is precisely where the speculation in speculative realism steps in but I feel that the positioning with death is telling. What it tells us is that to go beyond this limit, to speculate on what is absolutely withdrawn and so is an unimaginable other, an absolute nothing and the end of all perception, is to produce a supernaturalism. Specifically, a commitment to the absolutely withdrawn would seem to be a kind of mysticism.
As we have seen, what is partially absent is not necessarily absent. Objects are capable of change, the cosmos itself is capable of change. What is now withdrawn may be put forward, what is now touched-touching may be withdrawn. In other words, what remains withdrawn only does so contingently. There remains the possibility of some other part of the object’s latency being manifested. There is the ‘distinctive presence of that which withdraws or has withdrawn’ as Alva Noe has it in Varieties of Presence. Drawing on the example of a baseball player’s glove, or Heidegger’s example of the craftman’s hammer, Noe talks about the withdrawing of these objects as alive in the sense that a straight up absence as not-presence is not. If something is not-present it is of no concern. Other possible ways of thinking absence might be related to occupation. If something is occupied it’s space has been filled by something not-it. This clearly isn’t what withdrawal is referring to. Alva Noe suggests that we think of a kind of absence that is a presence, a presence-in-absence. He asks us to imagine a tomato. When we perceive the tomato we see it as a whole tomato. Asked to describe it we would list its visual perceptual properties. But we would probably exceed what was actually presented to our eyes. We would say that it had a back and even if we couldn’t see that back we would not doubt that it existed. We would display a kind of perceptual faith, in Merleau-Ponty’s words. For Noe, this isn’t because we make a cognitive inference about the tomato but because the tomato ‘looks to have a back. It looks solidly three dimensional’. There is no actual seeing of the occluded portion of the fruit but there is a relation to the fruit that is undeniably visual in which it’s having a back, it’s being the thing it is, is obvious. In this sense, the back of the tomato (the back of a house) shows up. This showing up is its being as a presence-as-absence. No sooner has Noe stated that the back of the tomato is absent and present to human perception than he generalises this to every instance of human perception. ‘Consider the front of a tomato. You see it. But do you see all of it’? For Noe, every object of perception is ‘hidden’ in the sense that my experience of it, my embodied perceptual engagement with it, is always fragile and incomplete. In other words, it is always open; always ontologically vulnerable.
Noe’s access to the presence-in-absence that is everything, or as he put it access to ‘the virtual all the way down’, is based on carnal ‘sensorimotor integration’ with the physical environment. The point is that while everything is hidden it can nonetheless be accessed practically through the structural coupling of the organism with it’s environment. By turning my head, by casting my eye, my changing my posture or walking a few footsteps, I alter that coupling and achieve a different angle of access. Our access to the withdrawn, and what remains withdrawn, is dependent, at least in part, on our practicality and virtuosity.
This might still both Michael. It remains within the pan-correlationism that attaches cognitive powers to all object-object relations. The kind of virtuosity that I have talked about is the kind that has been sketched in terms of human perceptual capacities and intentional agency. Hairdryers and clouds are unlikely to be just these kinds of virtuosos. Yet if part of all of this has been to call attention to the onto-specificity of ensembles then we ought to recall that the human is precisely that ensemble that grasps the world in a fully corporeal sense. We are that kind of ensemble for whom cognitive, affective, and embodied capacities are utterly enmeshed together. As I hope my mentions of death showed, our corporeal vulnerability and our ontological vulnerability are of the same kind. The being of beings has to be understood as corporeality. If it is the case that ‘nothing incorporeal exists’ then there is nothing that lacks materiality, nothing that can’t be made to show up. Mind can only emerge out of the complex intermatrises that enact it, and it can’t be reduced to its human side or to the brain. Perhaps the pan-correlationism or panpsychism that Michael is wanting to avoid is something that shows up in OOO because it is spread across all relations that we can look at. We can never look anywhere where mind is not. This is not the same as to say that we can never look anywhere that the human is not, or where discursivity, or power is not; instead it is to suggest that each and every object that the human touches, every human-human/human-object relation (and the object-object relations that those depend on) are the corporeal mechanisms of the logos spermatikos of mind. The point would be that mind or ‘mind-like’ encounters between objects would be neither something that belonged to humans or to nonhumans but to the cosmos itself. Rather than a panpsychism this might resemble a material pantheism. At the same time, we might consider that practicality and virtuosity might not be traits that only humans engage in.
This hasn’t even begun to get at Michael’s point or to answer it. As ever, I stumble onward in my dilettante contributions. Maybe this one will be expanded on.