Um, excuse me. There seems to be a human at the center of your object-oriented ontology.

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I’ll be participating in The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium at The New School on September 15. When I received the invitation a few weeks ago, my immediate response was: “I’m honored to have been invited — but you know I’m not a philosopher, right? Are you sure you want me?” Fast forward a few days, and I find myself on the schedule. I’m working under the assumption that my role is to represent object-focused work from outside the fold — work that might have both something to contribute to, and something to learn from, OOO. Sure, I’m up for that. It’s encouraging to recall these words from Graham Harman in a Mute interview from this past summer:

…OOP will want to say more about numerous concrete topics. Here I’m not as worried, because other people are doing much of the work for us already. It’s not my job to tell anthropologists and video artists how OOP should affect their work. That’s their job. They’re supposed to tell me what they learned, and maybe it will have a retroactive effect on my philosophy.

Perhaps I’m one of those “other people.” Yet my acceptance of these terms doesn’t mean that I’m not shaking in my boots, positively daunted by the prospect of temporarily infiltrating such a tightly-knit and intimidatingly intellectual group.

I’d been observing the evolution of the OOO “movement,” if you will, from the periphery for the past year-and-a-half or so. I became aware of it, or them, when I started developing my Media & Materiality grad seminar early last year, and I’ve been sporadically following some of the key figures’ blogs since then. I’m of course sympathetic to their overall mission — or at least what I understand of it. Ian Bogost offered a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” on his blog in December 2009:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves. [Here are some other attempts to articulate what OOO is all about.]

Sure, sign me up! This works for me primarily, I think, because I’ve been working under most of the same assumptions — although I might’ve articulated them differently (or not thought to articulate them at all) — for the past decade or more. I say this not in a “Pshaw! I’ve been doing this stuff for years!“-sort-of-way, but in a “Hey, cool, we’re of like minds!”-sort-of-way.

I’m going to be talking about infrastructures — micro and macro, animate and inanimate, concrete and conceptual — in my talk on the 15th. And I’m not going to attempt to ape the philosophy talk; I’d make an utter fool of myself. Instead, I’m going to talk the way I normally talk, and hope that we find some fruitful intersections. Still, for the past week or so I’ve been doing a little cramming with the OOO “primers” in an attempt to find answers to some fundamental questions: How do they define “objects”? And why is the object the “unit” we should use to “package” (for lack of a better term) things as disparate as plumbers, bonobos, and sandstone into a “flat ontology”? (See Bogost’s Latour Litanizer. Harman explains his litanizing strategy in Mute: “In many cases I try to have the lists include one object from the sciences, one living creature, one machine, one compound entity, one human political unit and perhaps one fictional entity, just to enforce the notion of a ‘flat ontology’ in which all objects are equally objects.”)

Because I have infrastructure on the brain, I’m also having a really hard time getting past what seems to me an inherent contradiction in the infrastructure of the OOO enterprise itself — all the blogs; the university-based conferences, and the airplanes and faculty travel budgets that take the geographically dispersed “core” OOO group to those conferences; the doctoral students who lobby their departments to make those conferences happen; the open-access publishers that have helped to popularize the field; the glaring gender imbalance in the community; the linguistic infrastructure, so dependent as it seems to be on neologizing and developing new OOO “versions.” I just can’t get over the contradiction between, on one hand, the desire to remove the human, and human experience, from the center of philosophy; and, on the other hand, the blatant anthropocentrism — I might go so far as to say egocentrism (I’m referring to a systemic characteristic, not to the egocentrism of any particular individual(s)) — of the work involved in developing and promoting this post-/anti-/other-/whatever- humanist framework.

I’m sure I’m putting my philosophical naïveté (or stupidity?) on full display here. Maybe this is simply the way things work in this field: even within a collective enterprise, as OOO seemingly is, one still has to cultivate recognition for one’s unique contributions to the field (which presumes that we’re still looking for “individual genius”). And that responsibility involves coining new phrases; branding new theories; promoting (through either good or bad press!) one’s colleagues’ terminology and ontological flavors; convening the group for international symposia; and writing lots of lengthy treatises debating the merits of different colleagues’ unique OOO variants, while barely mentioning any actual objects at all. Harman, again in the Mute interview, offers a SWOT-based marketing analysis of some of the available brands:

It’s hard to say which brand of speculative realism is the most popular among philosophers (perhaps Quentin Meillassoux’s), but in humanities fields outside philosophy there’s no question that object-oriented philosophy is the dominant version. This is not surprising, given OOP’s highly democratic approach to objects. Those forms of SR which claim that sociology is worthless compared with neuroscience are obviously not going to be useful to sociologists. By contrast, OOP is far less judgemental about the other disciplines and welcomes interaction with them. OOP makes room to an equal degree for electrons, medieval history, literary criticism, and musicianship, so it’s little wonder that we’ve become a quick favourite across the widest variety of disciplines.

This self-reflexivity is endemic to “emerging” fields. I’ve noted before how much writing in the Digital Humanities still seems to be about what the Digital Humanities even are. Yet the emergence of a new field of study, a new method, a new ontology offers up the possibility to create a new discursive space — to design the “infrastructures” through which these developments can take shape. In their introduction to The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Harman acknowledge the roles that a vibrant blogging community, adventurous new journals, and open-access publishing have played in shaping the discursive politics surrounding Speculative Realism. But why don’t we expand the OOO “litany” to call our attention also to other “objects” in the movement itself: disciplinary values (individual genius?), the Carbon footprint for those symposia, gender, the academic market for branded theories, and the politics of its rhetoric — which, from my vantage point, seems to have an anthropocentric bias out of character with the movement’s professed mission.

I offer this observation as a non-expert, as an external observer who’s quite sympathetic to what OOO stands for but not entirely sure that its discursive practices fit me well. And here I have to acknowledge my own biases: I’m not one for neologizing. I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a “theorist” because I’d never presume that I could generate an “original” theory. I’m way too self-effacing to think that the world could possibly need me to invent new language or intellectual frameworks.

The work that I do is simply a product of contact lenses (one object from the sciences), border collies (one living creature), a series of usually trusty Mac computers (one machine), the Dewey Decimal system (one compound entity), Happy Valley (one human political unit), Ferris Bueller (one fictional entity) — and, if you’ll permit me to add my own category to the litany, extreme sleep deprivation (one psychosomatic condition).

What if OOO, as an “institution” or practice, were to think of itself as a “flat ontology”?

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Um, excuse me. There seems to be a human at the center of your object-oriented ontology. by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One comment on “Um, excuse me. There seems to be a human at the center of your object-oriented ontology.

  1. Liz September 3, 2011 7:33 AM

    Great post Shannon – and I think you capture and articulate many people’s responses to OOO/P. I will look forward to hearing you report back from the symposium!

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