McKenzie Wark on Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects

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Noticed McKenzie Wark’s review (or should we say, series of notes) under Letters in Public Seminar section of Arts and Design: From OOO to P(OO). Wark’s work is usually succinct and pungent, informed by a Marxian vision that one can take or leave. From his early Hacker Manifesto with its formalist nod; to Gamer Theory that reads more like an instruction manual for the nerd in us all; to his inner history of the Situationist movement spanning the secret nerve center of our late modernity Wark leads us through the ruins of our belated era like a pilot without a rudder seeking the epistemological nuggets of some forgotten vein of truth rather than gold. Learned and observant, Wark appraises without a calculated estimation; targets but leaves us with the circumspect and peripheral rather than the bulls eye. For all that his mind is sprightly and gracious to a point, giving us the survey if not the details of the land and map; at once loquacious and insightful he opens a thought without finally closing it down.

In his review (letter?) of Timothy Morton’s Hyperorbjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota, 2013) he tells us he has some problems with it as theory and will try his best to outline where his own thinking and Morton’s “overlap and diverge”. I’m not going to reiterate the long rambling notations of his critique in this post, but rather highlight certain points.

What is obvious for anyone that has followed OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology) from its inception as part of a turn toward speculative realism beginning with the 2007’s Goldsmith’s College conference that brought together Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux, and Graham Harman is that this review by Wark describes the influence that the latter, Harman’s OOO has had on contemporary philosophy for good or ill.  That’s all part of recent history better left to the recorders of minor incidents. Out of it came Brassier’s turn toward Sellars and Brandom, Grant’s Schellingianism, Meillassoux’s critique of Hume and Kant, and Harman’s post-phenomenological ontology. With new works published on the history of this episode along with the phenomenological tradition in situ during the twentieth-century by Peter Gratton (see Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects), Steven Shapiro (see The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism), Tom Sparrow (see The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism), and Peter Wolfendale (see Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes) we’re gaining an understanding of a tradition that will doubtfully move ahead into our new century questioning and revising its project into new and thriving modes of inquiry.

As I was reading Wark’s review of Morton’s work the one thing that struck me most is that rather than being a subtle critique of Morton’s book in itself Wark is rather backhandedly providing a series of critiques on Morton’s philosophical forbear, Graham Harman. Most of all Wark attacks the notion of Harman’s key concept of the “withdrawal”.   The first time we see this notion of the “withdrawal of the object” in Harman’s work is in his book on Martin Heidegger Tool-Being in a discussion on equipment where he presents it “as an agent thoroughly deployed in reality, as an impact irreducible to any list of properties that might be tabulated by an observer”.1

Right off the bat Harman will note that for Heidegger the first significant trait of equipment is its “invisibility” (p. 21). As Harman will remark:

As a rule, the more efficiently the tool performs its function, the more it tends to recede from view: “The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw [zurückziehen] in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically.” (p. 21)

It’s from this observation that objects withdraw to be authentically ready-to-hand. Actually there’s nothing mystifying about this, what Harman is describing is the well-known fact that while we use (let’s say) a hammer to pound a nail, the hammer recedes from view in the action of pounding the nail; it withdraws (invisibly) from our view or perspective, goes unnoticed. Yet, if the hammer breaks, if it suddenly malfunctions it becomes visible to us, suddenly makes its presence known to us as something real and authentic; its failure makes it appear to us, and rather than withdrawn from view it is very much visible to our minds. Yet, it’s not as simple as that, for what is presented is not the tool-being of the tool but its brokenness; for the tool-being of the tool is never directly accessible, only its profiles – its sensual appendages. This is where it gets fuzzy. Harman will make the point that Heidegger annihilates “all possibility of independent objects existing in a vacuum outside the world of relations, functions, significations. For him, the tool in the reality of its labor belongs to a world-system, one that has swallowed up all individual components into a single world-effect. It is only from out of this system that specific beings can ever emerge. The world of tools is an invisible realm from which the visible structure of the universe emerges.” (p. 24)

So in effect Harman tips his hand to Kant’s realm of noumenon, of a realm unthinkable and invisible, beyond direct observation or access, a non-phenomenal realm that gives birth to the visible realm of objects, entities, things we see around us in the universe. But he’ll add a qualifier saying that all the deployed or known objects in the universe we see and observe also form a split object, one half withdrawn and beyond observation; and, another half, sensual and observable to our senses and instruments. So that the universe is made of real and sensual objects, but not in some dualism of object/subject or mind/world, but rather the real contains the sensual as invisible contains the visible, etc. as in object and its relations.

What many critics of Harman attack is this withdrawn and invisible layer of things, which to many is an irrational positing that leads to obscurantism rather than knowledge. For Harman it is not the chasm between mind and reality, human and non-human that matters (i.e., the correlationism paradox Meillassoux’s After Finitude exposed). No. What matters for Harman is on the contrary “the dominant assumption of philosophy since Kant, the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world, but between objects and relations” (p. 2). The point being that Harman wants to circumvent the all too easy Idealism of the absolute, natural, or objective infringements of the Idea for a return to first philosophy of form and composition. But one that no longer relies on the Platonizing notion of an eternal realm of archetypal Ideas, but seeks to manifest what is already fully deployed here and now in our universe as event and movement.

So this cuts to the chase, what becomes apparent to those who have followed the debates around speculative realism surrounds this battle between structure and relations, object and its relations. On one side are those philosophers of processual theory who seem invested in proving that all that matters is a theory of relations. We’ve seen this in attacks against any form of structural realist or synchronic based philosophical approach by followers of Whitehead and other philosophers of process. In many ways it goes under an attack on the notion of totalism. Harman’s is a philosophy of dualism that takes the split between objects and relations to an absolute: the withdrawal of the object from its relations.

Rather than being forced into a return to Democritus and his metaphysical materialism of atoms and particles, Harman will return to the first philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and their substantial formalism: or, a philosophy of substances,

…substances that exceed every relation into which they might enter, without being ultimate pieces of tiny matter. (p. 2)

This is where we rediscover Wark’s fascination with Morton’s “hyperobjects”. As Morton describes them “Objects are unique. Objects can’t be reduced to smaller objects or dissolved upwards into larger ones. Objects are withdrawn from one another and from themselves. Objects are Tardis-like, larger on the inside than they are on the outside. Objects are uncanny. Objects compose an untotalizable nonwhole set that defies holism and reductionism. There is thus no top object that gives all objects value and meaning, and no bottom object to which they can be reduced. If there is no top object and no bottom object, it means that we have a very strange situation in which there are more parts than there are wholes. This makes holism of any kind totally impossible.” (116)

What Morton is referring to is the notion of emergence or any philosophy or doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole over its parts. In Morton and Harman the parts always exceed the whole and cannot be reduced to any totality whatsoever. In some ways this is a critique of all those who might think that OOO is a return to the Greek notion of Cosmos which was based upon the universe of things as a harmonious whole or totality within which everything had its fixed place and purpose, etc. The first theory of relations of a Whole or the One. This is also a subtle critique of Aristotle’s hylomorphism or theory of substance. Is substance a matter of “matter,” “form,” or a combination of the two? Aristotle would opt for a formalism, choosing form over matter. The cause of a thing’s being the actual thing it is, as we have seen, is form. Hence, concludes Aristotle, as the source of being and unity, form is substance.2

Harman would criticize Leibniz and Aristotle who both enforced an absolute distinction between substance and composite, saying “substance is not one kind of entity among others, but a way of being belonging to all entities, even those that seem at first to be mere composites” (p. 12). Harman makes another point about objects and their relations, one that stipulates that an “entity always holds something in reserve beyond any of its relations, and if this reserve also cannot be located in any of these relations, then it must exist somewhere else. And since this surplus or reserve is what it is, quite apart from whatever might stumble into it, it is actual rather than potential. But it is not present-at-hand, because I have shown that presence-at-hand turns out to be relational, against what is usually believed.” (p. 230)

This notion that the real object is the “surplus” or “reserve” – an excess rather than what can be reduced to its effects or its relations, then the object is always in movement and actual, an event-in-process and happening, in transition rather than some fixed and stable substantive thing as in the older forms of substantialist discourse and philosophy. For those familiar with Zizek one notices Harman’s careful appraisal of his Subject-as-Substance. What Harman does is the direct opposite of Zizek: the void is in things themselves, the split object is void and substance rather than void and subject. Harman shifts the void out into objects, and shifts the terms of German idealism to one of object and relations; but the object is not some synchronic structure, but rather a movement of events in dialectical engagement with its sensual appendages and profiles.

Wark will begin his essay trying to relegate Morton’s speculative philosophy to poetry and poetics as if to disqualify and distance OOO and hyperobjects from the more serious sort of philosophy practiced by Wark himself as praxis: “As always with ontology, ooo comes after the labor of producing a knowledge of affairs and adds a supernumerary interpretation to it.” Wark obviously sees the true path of philosophy as the labor of knowledge production rather than some retroactive interpretive activity. Wark will throughout his essay disparage Morton’s philosophical presumption as a poetics – one against which he would rather “move on from the contemplative thought of ooo to what it cannot but acknowledge in passing but continually represses: the labor or praxis via which a thing is known”. Wark seems prefers an epistemological philosophy that prioritizes knowing over being, the thing known over its actuality as an event or object, its thingness and ontological or ontic register.

Like many current scholars Wark will lambast ooo with the new or not so new notion of the Anthropocene  “as a new historical age in which nonhumans are no longer excluded,” and as a new stage of geology in which humans are included. That to me is the truly strange thing to think”. A cursory look on amazon.com will bring one to the academic grist mill collection of titles dealing with this new Anthroposcene. This new category of scholarly work allows many on the left of the climate debates to demarcate the carbon-footprint of Man upon the environment as if to say: “See, we knew it all along. Man is bad. Environment is Good. We must instigate new reforms, enforce a new carbon age on Man and force him to curtail his wild and aimless degradation of the environment. He is no longer the shepherd of the world. In fact his just a bit player in a cosmic scenario that puts him in flat competition with the rest of the flatlanders of the universe.” The spectrum of new agers and philosophers following the call of the Anthropocene discourse is just another of the latest trends to build a new political movement against a tired and outworn Marxist dialectic that has lost its steam and utopian desire. Will it find it here?

Wark will remind us of Morton’s ““modernity is the story of how oil got into everything” following such abject horror and ironies as Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which brought forth the secret history of our times under late capitalism as non other than oil as the ‘lubricant’ of historical and political narratives. Oil as hyperobject exist not just in space, but has duration and exists through time and events in levels of being that are part of a larger timespace continuum. One might even allude to the subatomic realm of quantum theory where objects are unlocalized, and can exist in two places at once (and, two times?). Wark will remark on the battle within quantum theory of Bohr, Mach, Heisenberg and others saying contra “Morton, I don’t think Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is not correlationist at all. Morton writes of “Bohr as thinking quantum events as if they were “correlations to (human) instruments.” (37) But why is the instrument ‘human’? Is not the instrument an inhuman thing that mediates the nonhuman to the human? Again, there’s a collapsing of the space in which praxis occurs here.”

Of late philosophers have made it central to philosophy to take a stance on the human/inhuman divide. Why? This notion that we can philosophize about the inhuman, leave the humanistic world with all its talk of finitude and limitation, sciences and politics behind, prioritize the inhuman and animals at the expense of human thought, etc. As if we could get outside ourselves, leave our human thoughts in some non-space and allow the objects, entities, things to speak for themselves. The non-human turn seems to be more a battle against a tradition of philosophy that has backed itself into a corner, come to the point of parody and a too much secular refinement of its own interminable discursive critiques of mind and politics at the expense of – to use Meillassoux’s term – the Great Outdoors. One could almost surmise that what Harold Bloom discovered about poets and poetry is true of philosophers as well, that the burden of the past weighs too heavy on the sons; that they need to clear a space and make room for themselves amid a tradition that is in decay. That the sons are seeking to overcome the burden of a too weary and overladen philosophical heritage that has come to the end-game of its classical age, begun to decay and fall into the parodic worlds of a self-reflecting hall of mirrors. In the last generation they termed it the prison house of language. Now they just call it the cracker-jack world of pop-up philosophy where Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, Zombies, Noir, and almost every piece of popular art and thought becomes grist-for-the-mill of a philosophy spinning on fumes to its ultimate death.

In another place Wark will admonish Morton for what he perceives as his Platonism of objects, saying,

I can’t agree with Morton’s attempt to make a poetics of the object an intimation of a higher reality. The so-called flat ontology of ooo needs to be countered with a flat epistemology, one which does not a priori assign a hierarchy to ways of knowing, but rather holds open the question of which forms of knowledge have priority in which domain, and more importantly, what their modes of relation should be. Like Bogdanov, I think the goal is not to assert a hierarchy of one form of knowledge over others, be it the sciences or philosophy or poetry. The goal might rather be a comradely cooperation of modes of knowing as a subset of ways of laboring.

It’s here that he makes his gambit of epistemic over ontological, knowledge over the mere relations of things, withdrawn or not. One can read Wark’s essay for oneself, and decide if either path is of current worth or not. Who will ultimately benefit from a battle between competing forms of flattening of reality into knowledge or relations? Anyone’s guess. Being a Zizekian with a pinch of Landianism I’ll leave that to the speculative crowd among you to quarrel over.

Read McKenzie Wark’s essay (Letter): From OOO to P(OO).

Also, Tim’s response: But But But. (thanks, Jeremy!)


 

  1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 21). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shields, Christopher, “Aristotle“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

 

6 thoughts on “McKenzie Wark on Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects

  1. While I don’t like engaging in debates over the merits of speculative realism or ooo, I want to interject a few thoughts I had while reading Wark’s piece. Perhaps this is a reduction or even straw-man figure of whats going on here, but what I took away was the question of’what can a theory of hyperobjects do that climate science can’t? Or, opening it up a little wider: why privilege philosophical discourses when we have a set of tools, instruments, and techniques that spell out clearly the direction that things are going – that, the impossibility of continuing the growth patterns that are inscribed at the core of our civilization’s functions. Of course, there’s a slippage here, because the second we engage with ‘philosophy’ or even theory as a discursive force, we’re “doing” philosophy or theory. It becomes, for me at least, a question of the position or ground from which we build philosophy and theory. If we’re philosophizing or theorizing with the expressed intent of ultimately engaging with political, social, or economic forces, our baseline must become climate science (which, as Paul Edward’s shows in “A Vast Machine”, is actually a panoply of sciences that are indistinguishable from the technical infrastructure that upholds it). That leads me to two other thoughts:

    First, the entry of the Anthropocene into the humanities should be welcomed and encouraged. It does run the risk of trivializing or commodifying what is a slow unfolding of a global tragedy (and indeed, “_____ and the Anthropocene makes for a catchy conference title). For science and philosophy alike, the term “Anthropocene” is a placeholder, a discursive artifact through which to communicate an immense and overwhelmingly array of interlocks between ecological and human systems (a system of systems, if you will). Thus it plays the same function as the hyperobject, that of making the unthinkable thinkable. But what the Anthropocene has that the hyperobject lacks is its a priori establishment in the natural sciences, which stands to open a more dynamic channel of communication between science and the humanities.

    Second, the shift from a humanist philosophy to one that blurs the boundary between the human and the non-human is necessary. Theory, of course, has been doing this for some time; from Foucault to post-colonial theory has shown how fuzzy both the conceptual constructions of the “human” and “nature” really are, and how they are produced through power relations. This takes on new dimensions in our current moment: while science has collected data on the world, historically it has been philosophy that translates and balances this data in a way that is harmonious with human needs. Unfortunately the core of humanistic philosophy has been atomistic on one hand, and has produced the image of human culture and society as a sort of closed system fundamentally sheered off from the open system of nature. Shifting the discourse from a humanist one to an inhuman/posthuman/cyborg one isn’t to engage in anti-humanism – it’s addressing the need to fix critical flaws spanning our epistemologies and ontologies. I see this shift as analogous (and even directly connected to) to one from a neoclassial economics to an ecological economcis, in moving from modes of knowledge and practice built on limited, human-centric inputs and outputs to modes that take into consideration the multitudes of complex systems bound up in those inputs and outputs.

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    • Yea, I understand. My friend Scott Bakker would say, “Forget Philosophy, science is doing it.” So there are those schools that say why even bother with philosophy, like poetry and literature before it, it is doomed to fall away along with the humanities as sources of knowledge and information. Then the other side says, well philosophy was never about knowledge to begin with but rather about that illusive wisdom that gives us the indefinable something we need to get on with our lives, etc.

      Obviously we hear scientists all the time on various blogs and e-zines stating philosophy is the last thing they think about. Yet, when we read certain scientists we realize how beneficial philosophy might have been for them in developing their concepts and frameworks. So the age old battle goes in a circle.

      The Anthropocene just seems the latest umbrella concept to discuss and attack the human-centric traditions of humanism etc. A way of bringing in the flat ontologies of things, while describing our impact on those things (i.e., climate, soil, water, resources, etc.). Unlike the use of Gaia in the last generation of systems theory that had mythical overtones, this new concept is bland and neutral allowing the tropes to go unnoticed but delivering the same essential message as before.

      Along with this notion of blurring boundaries of human/non-human comes that of artificial/natural, culture/nature, etc. As if eliding the distinctions of humanistic tradition would suddenly reveal something that was left unsaid, when in fact what we’re doing is rather to absorb the natural into the abstract and artificial, nature into culture, etc. As in all dialectics the moment you eliminate one thing you realize that thing did not vanish as supposed, only the distinction that made it visible in the first place. Without our distinctions (i.e., boundary concepts) we’re like sailors on the ocean without a compass, we’ll keep looking at the stars but want have a map to guide us on our way so more than likely we’ll retread the same patterns as before we just want make the distinctions and know the difference till we’re dead in the water.

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      • I think that what we call “objects” are always partial objects, part visible, part imperceptible; they take on the appearance of wholeness because of their rendering in terms of a ‘cut’ within the real. When we take objects like laptop computer, the IKEA lamp, the tree in the front yard, the cat on the bed, or more abstracted formations like “culture”, “nature”, the “human”, we’re isolating a variable and sheering it off from what it is: something swimming in an ecology of systems, a system of systems, an ecology of ecologies. That’s not alarming, of course, because one can never articulate the properties of something without viewing it as a cut. A body, or more properly, a system of knowledge emerges when linkages form between cuts that allow a tracing of the contours of the system they are embedded within. These systems are embedded in wider systems, so on and so forth.

        Such is our condition: inescapably grounded in the messiness of the materiality of things, whilst simultaneously unable to ever truly grasp this materiality without recourse to some mediating apparatus, which in itself only provides us with approximations of the system’s functions. There is no distinction, then, between what is “real” and “artificial”, or what we call “culture” and “nature”. The problem emerges when we take the boundary lines between the cuts as actuality – which seems to be the nature of the trajectory of knowledge in the Western mode. Historically speaking, nature only became nature by parsing the ecological through the cultural, when it became knowable through quantification methods established first through Christian religion, and then through its transformation into ‘raw materials’ (read: cheap nature) for capitalist extraction. How differently might things have turned out had culture been acknowledged for what it really is: natureculture, a system arising from the relations between social actor in the midst of their material infrastructures and its ecological substrate?

        There is where the benefit of the term “Anthropocene” comes in: it foregrounds the inability to think of human society without non-human actors on one hand, and the fact that humans are the primary drivers of global ecological systems on the other. It draws our attention to that thing that always appeared at the corner of the eye – that point where the object is sheered off from the systems it is suspended in. The blind spot comes back to haunt us in the form of geological trauma – while simultaneously opening up a transversality in thought, the goal of which is to intervene in this system (if not to reverse it, then to find ways to upgrade our system’s survival protocols).

        So in many respects, it comes down to an issue of functionality: what mode(s) of knowing best equips those whose aim is to work within and against our world’s runaway positive feedback?

        Liked by 1 person

      • In many ways the neurosciences seem to agree that functionalism, is for better or worse one of the best heuristic strategies at the moment. In a lot of ways this is the issue in philosophy today: the need for a new framework, a hyperbolic grasp of the overarching concepts and tools, a leap out of our Kantian heritage… yet, one will not find a way out till one has gone to the center of the labyrinth and defeated the Minotaur of the Self and Subjectivity. What you call runaway positive feedback, others term accelerationism, others term thanatos and eros in their age old tribulations…. I doubt that will ever end. If it did we’d be dead. Without as William Blake once put it “opposites there is no movement”. He used the word “progression”… obviously our notions of progress have a lot to be desired and need a great deal of revisioning…

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