On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory

Below you will find a long review essay on three relatively recent books in Object-Oriented Ontology as they attempt to engage with ecology and ecological concerns (you may also download it as a PDF if you prefer). For those who read the essay, you will see that I am very critical of these works. The review was originally commissioned for an academic journal. This journal differs from other in its review policies in that reviews are sent out for peer review. The two reports I received from readers were very enthusiastic and recommended the review be published with some minor corrections. One reviewer actually suggested that the review was too forgiving and thought I should be even more critical. When I made my revisions I didn’t act on that suggestion, as I felt the piece was already harsh and, for the few who would read it, would already be controversial as is.

I was excited to publish the review and had spent a great deal of time on it. However, after the initial peer review stage the two main editors also take a pass at the reviews. Both ultimately disagreed strongly with the readers and made a number of suggestions and demands. This process lasted through two rounds and ultimately I felt they were asking me to change the piece so substantially that it was no longer a tolerable situation. Though I disagree strongly with them, I am thankful for some of their comments and respect their commitment to their standards. However, I am criticizing very powerful figures in the broad field of environmental humanities not because I think it is a good career move, but because I believe in the criticism. As I explained to the editors when I decided to withdraw the piece, I am not really rewarded for publishing work at my institution and am provided very little support for research and writing and as such I see no reason to compromise on what I do decide to publish much as they refuse to compromise.

Some of what I put forward at the end of the piece is forming the basis for a new project on ecology and colonialism, which includes a reading of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” through the work of Frantz Fanon.

On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory

Anthony Paul Smith, Department of Religion & Theology, La Salle University, United States

This review essay examines three recent works of ecotheory, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green(edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, and Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, all of which attempt to make use and deepen the philosophical project of object-oriented ontology (OOO). After an overview of the place of OOO within contemporary philosophy and its general principles, the essay posits that there is a unidirectional relationship between OOO and ecotheory (inclusive of scientific ecology). Since the practitioners of OOO discussed in this essay all claim that their work is philosophically realist in orientation, this failure to engage and mutate their philosophical work according to scientific ecology bears witness to the inability to fully break from anthropocentrism. At a deeper level this failure acts as a symptom for a wider failure to break from the colonial episteme that goes unexamined by OOO. Making use of Hortense Spillers’s conception of “pornotroping”, the essay offers a reading of various author appeals to love, erotics, and sadomasochism that argues this same colonial episteme of anti-Blackness structures OOO’s understanding of the object. While presenting a general critique of OOO’s interventions into ecotheory, the essay also calls for a deeper engagement and centering of scholarship in Black Studies and Queer Studies, particularly from an Afro-pessimist and anti-social perspective. Continue reading “On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory”

Hegel’s Kilogram: an InterCcECT lecture

What maps can relay the convergences and divergences, the topoi and the antagonisms, of philosophy and science?  How might the very terrain of modernity take different shape if these maps were recast?

InterCcECT is delighted to present “Hegel’s Kilogram,” a lecture by Nathan Brown, Director of the Centre for Expanded Poetics at Concordia University.   Join us Thursday 14 April, 4:30pm, at the gallery of our generous partners Sector 2337, 2337 N Milwaukee Ave (Blue Line: California).


Hegel’s Kilogram: On the Measure of Metrical Units
Hegel’s theory of measure, articulated in the Science of Logic, was developed shortly after the foundation of the metric system in the late 18th century. The establishment of physical standards for the meter and the kilogram, fabricated and archived at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres in 1799, illustrates Hegel’s understanding of measure as “the concrete truth of being” in a curiously salient way, demanding consideration of the relation between scientific accuracy, metaphysical speculation, and material particularity. The metric system instantiated universal standards of measure in singular physical objects, themselves created through meticulous measurement practices, thus dramatizing the problem of grounding in relation to both particular metrical units and the practice of science in general.
What is at stake, conceptually and empirically, when these inaugural units are themselves redefined? Since the 1960s, key standards of the International System of Units (SI) have been redefined on the basis of numerical constants, such as the speed of light (c) and the elementary charge (e), rather than physical objects. This paper considers ongoing efforts to redefine the kilogram unit on the basis of the Planck constant, focusing in particular on Watt Balance experiments carried out at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. These experiments offer a fascinating contemporary case study of the problem of measure. Considering both their empirical operations and their conceptual implications, I argue that the redefinition of metrical units is a key site for thinking not only the imbrication of epistemology and ontology, but also for understanding the history of modernity at the crux of science and philosophy.


Before and After, mark your calendars:


April 4  Henry James, Media Archaeologist

April 15 German Philosophical Aesthetics

April 18 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

On Realism

In Reason, Truth and History, Hilary Putnam defines metaphysical realism as the belief that ‘the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects’ and that there is, in principle, one true complete description of that world. His critique of this position is that (a) there is no way for us to climb out of our systems of reference in order to check that they successfully refer to the world; (b) we cannot rule out the possibility that the world could be conceptually divided up by us in a number of incommensurable ways, all consistent with our experience.

Contemporary speculative realism comes in a variety of forms, including object-oriented ontology and the kind of transcendental realism practised by Meillassoux. Without wishing to collapse these together, I think it is fair to say that they share an absolutising of the real, in the etymological sense that reality/objects are absolved (i.e. severed from) any dependence upon epistemological structures. Our access to the world does not determine that world.

It seems that this contemporary realism is not committed to significant aspects of the position which Putnam critiques. It need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.

In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.

All of which is to suggest that Putnam’s critique is still worth a look. Access to the world, consisting of translation between objects or the translation of the absolute itself into order and sense, constitutes an irreducible part of that world. The world does not offer itself as one mind-independent order of things.

This is not meant as a dismissal of speculative realisms, but an appeal to move beyond their initial self-definition, as simply radically opposed to anything that smacks of deconstruction or phenomenology, for instance. It is simply not the case that deconstruction is about irony and the prison house of language whereas realism is about seriousness and the great outdoors, any more than it is the case that realism is a stupid scientism. Perhaps issues of access and translation could provide the means for the varieties of continental and post-continental philosophy to begin to talk with, rather than at, one another.

So what was the point?

My post on the ontology of academia seems to have been widely misunderstood. Indeed, this was so much the case that it pushed me to the brink of despair about blogging as a pursuit — a dynamic that people’s insistence on reading my descriptive account of the U.S. as a party state as a list of recommendations for reform only exacerbated. While there are external reasons (mainly faculty meetings) that the latter, written over two weeks ago, was my last substantive post for the blog, the sense that anything I wrote was going to be met with incomprehension did not encourage me to make time.

That being said, any misunderstanding is obviously at least partly the author’s own fault, and so I will try to get at what I was doing in the post. My goal was to try to isolate what it is that academics do that no one else does. What is their “product”? It can’t be learning, because everyone is learning all the time and in many ways. In the last analysis, what they produce is grades, which are then agglomerated into degrees. Their activity is fundamentally one of certification. Yes, it’s meant to be certification of knowledge, but we all know that the certification does not always correspond closely with knowledge.

I wanted to suggest that the certification aspect is ineradicable — no employer, no publisher, no one can know in detail all that another person knows and can do. Continue reading “So what was the point?”

Gender & Ontology

Yesterday afternoon – after having read Brandy’s post, as well as Anthony’s recent post on ontology – I followed a link on Facebook to Eigenfactor’s breakdown of the gender balance in scholarly publications between the years of 1665 and 2011. The data apparently comes from JSTOR (I didn’t know that they’d stockpiled publications from the 17th century! Do they really?!) This isn’t necessarily relevant. But I decided to check out the stats in philosophy. In a broad sense, they are – not surprisingly – pretty bad: only 9.4% of the total publications are by women, as opposed to, say, 37.3% in education. But things get a little more interesting when you link to the philosophy publications page where the data breaks down into more nuanced detail. Relevant here: only 3.6% of all publications on ontological arguments are by women. By way of contrast, 19.3% of works on moral philosophy have been published by women.

While I share Anthony’s distaste for the muscular “hard core” discourse on ontology, I have to confess that I am also pretty fixated on ontological claims and issues. I will admit to being a little geeked about the fact that new strains of “speculative thought” proclaimed an interest in ontology.  Continue reading “Gender & Ontology”

The ontology of Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin characters do not exist in themselves. Their function is to serve as occasions for snappy lines of dialogue. In the last analysis, it does not matter which character delivers which line. All are equally quick-witted, and all speak in two and only two cadences — either sardonic rapid-fire or expansive sermonizing.

Just as lines can land on any character, the cadences can land on any situation. One might think that sardonic rapid-fire is particularly suited for high-stress work situations, but it can work equally well for an elevator ride or a drink after work. Similarly, there is no necessity that expansive sermonizing be reserved for moments that, in our world, would “naturally” lend themselves to leisurely reflection — it can just as easily arrive in the midst of a stressful situation in which every second counts. After all, how will the audience know what’s really at stake in that situation if they are not explicitly told?

The imperative is always: tell, don’t show. Continue reading “The ontology of Aaron Sorkin”