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The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

February, 2010 Core Group Meeting

Further Resources and Questions

about ... OOO
(Object-Oriented Ontology)
Anne Dalke & Liz McCormack

Starting with Some Shared Experiences....

...the question remains: what difference might it make
(in particular, to our discussion of evolving systems)
to re-figure the world in this way?

To replace the evolutionary tree w/ the tangled bank?

Layers of onion skin ...

... with a flat ontology?

@ the SLSA conference, we heard this challenge:
how might drawing attention to "things at all scales ... pondering their nature
and relations with one another as much with ourselves" enhance our thinking?

What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements
in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.

Katrin Möller, There is No Time

According to Ian Bogost (who gave the keynote address @ the conference),
"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, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, 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."

OOO is a "faction" of a larger movement known as "speculative realism," which imagines--from
the "point of view" of objects (or animals--anything but humans!) how they exist and interact.

We are still trying to get our heads around this concept. What would it mean to organize the world
not as we generally do (described so wonderfully by George Eliot in the "pier-glass" passage @ the
beginning of Chapter 27 of her novel Middlemarch: around our own egotism
), but around other objects.
And how can we possibly even do that, except by simply projecting our experiences onto others'?
How can I possibly 'speculate' what life might like for an atom? For an alpaca?

@ SLSA there was a "stream" (a series of linked presentations) ear-marked as
"Whitehead+Cosmopolitics: A Novel Ecology of Practice,"
which highlighted both the role of Alfred North Whitehead
as the great-granddaddy of process philosophy, along with
the more contemporary work of Isabelle Stengers’  Cosmopolitiques.

Another central theorist of OOO is Susan Oyama,
who argues in The Ontology of Information ('85, '00) that

“What we need here ... is the stake-in-the-heart move, and the heart is the notion that some influences are more equal than others, that form – or its modern agent, information – exists before the interactions in which it appears and must be transmitted to the organisms either through genes or by the environment .... Change, then, is best thought of not as the result of a dose of form and animation from some causal agent, but rather as a system alteration jointly determined by contemporary influences and by the state of the system, which state represents the synthesis of earlier interactions” (31, 37).

What seems to us most interesting in Oyama's "constructionist interactionism" is its challenge to the "tyranny of the metaphor" of "development" (with its implication of making something latent manifest), and its concomitant refusal of any conceptual, dualistic distinction between organisms and their environment (and so between "nature" and "nurture," between "inherited" and "acquired," between "informative" and "intentional," between "inner" and "outer" causes):

"What I meant to communicate was the unwisdom of treating either independently of the other(s), the impossibility of having predefined natures or environments at all .... For me, what is salient about systems is the way that connectivity does away with in-principle and cleanly distinguishable causes and effects .... Mentality is increasingly being cast in ... terms ... of sociality, activity, and physiciality; of distributedness, embeddedness, and embodiment" (202, 214).

According to Larval Subjects (the blog of Collins College philosophy professor Levi R. Bryant)
"OOO is not preoccupied with the question of whether being falls on the side of nature or of culture .... the issue is ... rather in establishing a flat entirely different sorting of the world .... the criteria for being an object is not whether or not an entity is physical, but whether or not it makes differences .... This egalitarianism or ontological difference i ... the thesis that ... if a difference is made then that thing is...."

Although we love narratives with strong stories, built around the experiences of strong characters,
we also very find ourselves very much drawn to this amazingly egalitarian vision of a world in which
-- in line with some of the thinking of Native American writers like Paula Gunn Allen --

"Perceptual modes ... are more resemblant of open-field perception than of foreground-background perceptions .... Traditional peoples perceive their world in a unified-field fashion that is far from the single-focus perception that generally characterizes Western masculinist monotheistic modes of perception." 

Our discussion notes:

1. Dislocating to a different dimension changes the orientation.
2. It also changes the scale of things.
3. It suggests that any human view is fundamentally local. (Can we expand that local activity?)
4. It questions the dualism -- us and the rest -- around which we generally organize the world:
the operative "sense-making action" is not opposition, but a systemic connection among all things.
5. It's not about a moving individual against a background of stasis; the whole system moves, not just parts of it.
6. It is not about events that take place in time, or about identifying super/supra
moments that occur in a developmental frame: time is not the organizing principle.
7. Can we actually THINK (=problem-solve) this way, rather than just imagine or speculate?
8. If we can dislocate our p.o.v. to a thing, can we take the next step up, to a system?
Might there be a human view that is fundamentally systemic?
9. Might this exercise form a framework for productive abstraction/modeling--> can it get us somewhere new?
10. If not: what might we do, knowing that it's a dead end?

Let's consider points of view in general:
is there a 1-to-1 mapping between the universe considered from
a point of view, and the universe considered from all points of view?

Time exists in both points of view:
as seen by a causal agent, and
in the way a whole system evolves
(i.e. focusing on the travels of the boat on the river,
vs. looking @ the way a river alters from straight to meandering).

What is the useful question to ask about these different scales?
How do religious traditions speak to this issue: do they advocate
the world view of an individual in the stream, or of the stream itself?
Is this a contrast between what we know (=experience)
and what we believe (or need) to be true?

Summary and Continuing Discussion...