Thursday, December 8, 2011

What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

When I first got interested in object-oriented ontology (OOO) I wondered just what qualified as an object, metaphysically speaking. I suppose the question was particularly acute because, at that time, I was reading Tim Morton’s early thinking on hyperobjects, which presupposed ordinary metaphysical objects and seemed to extend it in some (possibly strange) way to some special class of objects, objects, Tim, said, that were massively distributed in space and time. Such as global climate change. What’s to be gained, I wondered, by saying that climate change is an object, as opposed, say, to a process?

And that question—what IS an object?—was still very much on my mind at the OOO meetings in New York City in mid-September. A brief exchange between Graham Harman and Levi Bryant clarified that at bit. I forget just what they were talking about, but they decided tnat, no, it wasn’t an object, it was a set, an arbitrary collection of objects. So, (metaphysical) objects are one thing, sets another. We’re getting somewhere.

Then I discovered, perhaps in reading The Quadruple Object (which I’m still studying, it’s a dense little book) that imaginary objects are as much under consideration as, well, real objects. Except, you see, that imaginary objects are real objects, don’t you see? but not real in the way that real objects are. Now, of course, that’s not what Harman says, nor is it quite what I was thinking or am now thinking, but it’s a useful index of potential confusion.

What I was looking for was some special definition of what constitutes and object. And there isn’t one. Objects are in opposition to relations, and there’s this story about a hammer, or an orange or a tree, whatever, that’s always withdrawing itself from us and from other objects: “. . . an object is anything that has a unified reality that is autonomous from its wider context and also from its own pieces” (Quadruple, p. 116).

OK. So, is a shadow an object? Here’s a photograph of a shadow:


It’s perhaps unnecessarily complex for this purpose, but it will have to do.

The shadow is of a rail fence as it is cast on a field of grasses and wildflowers. The bottom rail is clearly visible about a third of the way up from the bottom. The top rail is above the middle but it tends to get lost in the darker green of the remaining leafage on the tops of the plants.

As far as I can tell, this shadow, and any other shadow, fails the autonomy requirement. Shadows exist ONLY in context. If you eliminate either the light source (or sources), the occluding object (or objects), or the receptive surface (or surfaces), and there is no shadow. Thus shadows aren’t objects. But they can nonetheless give rise to sensual objects, an example of which is captured in that photo, and I’ve got other photos of that shadow, other sensual objects. That shadow is as perceptible as any of the many plants on which it is projected.

So, a shadow is something that isn’t itself an object, a real object, but gives rise to sensual objects. Imaginary objects give rise to sensual objects too. But what sort of thing is a shadow that it has effects in the world like those of, well, real objects and imaginary objects?

I don’t know what kind of question this is in the context of object-oriented ontology. I don’t know how to resolve it or to weigh it. But it’s not shadows that I’m concerned about. It’s those imaginary objects, some of which are more or less like real objects, except that they’re imaginary, some of which are completely fantastic and only like real objects in this or that property or component, and some of which may even have been thought to be real but have now turned out to be only imaginary (dragons? phlogiston?). As far as I can tell, the imaginary objects of which we know require the support of human culture (though I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some animals experience imaginary objects) and human culture, conceptually, is a mess.

What worries me is that human culture may well rest on vast assemblages of things that exist and dissolve like shadows. To the extent that that is so—and I’ve certainly not demonstrated it—I’m not sure what object-oriented ontology is going to have to say about it. The physical set-up that gives us the shadow of a rail fence on a field is much like the physical set-up that gives us the image of Wily Coyote going over a cliff and hanging suspended in the air for a moment until he looks down and then, zip! he falls. Instead of the field we have a motion picture screen; instead of the sun we have the projector bulb; and instead of the occluding fence we have the film strip rushing through the gate. Eliminate any one of those and zip! no more Wily Coyote over the cliff.

There are other ways to cut that, but I’m not sure where any of them lead. What I’m wondering is whether or not, in claiming to talk about things like Wily Coyote as easily as it talks about hammers and tsunamis, whether object-oriented ontology isn’t claiming the prize before having run the race. The funny thing is, perhaps OOO in fact deserves that prize. But I’d like to see how it runs the race.


  1. Object Oriented Ontology sounds a little New Age-ie to me

    but I'm on with Harman on reversing the linguistic turn of philosophy
    which was just a waste of time basically, out of not having else to do, science taking over from philosophy (and those French who love the flair, including Zizek)

    if that's what he is trying to do really
    and eventually achieve the Heideggerian turn

    although I doubt the latter

  2. Well, OOO is young and still growing. We'll see how things work out. But, yes, I agree, the language turn has gotten stale, though I'm not sure it was a complete waste.