What A Mesh

rabbit-hole

Timothy Morton’s ecological theory is meshy. Literally, actually. For Morton, mesh explains the interconnectedness of all living and non-living beings. infinite both in number of connections and scale of differentiation. He states:

The ecological thought does, indeed, consist in the ramifications of the truly wonderful fact of the mesh. All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more now about how life forms have shaped the Earth (think of oil, of oxygen–the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural selection implies extinction (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 2010).

At first glance, this idea doesn’t seem to jive with object-oriented studies, which holds that all objects exist independent of other objects and possess agency, or the capacity to move in and out of relations (and assemblages of relations). If all objects are interconnected, however,  they lack agency and, instead, remain ensnared within a totalizing relational determination. Independence of preordained–so noted because absolute relationality implicates relations, themselves, in a clown walk of codependence–relational assemblages is impossibilized, precipitating the stacking of relations on top of one another to forge illusive teleological regimes. So, does that mean the concept must be discarded, since that Tim is an OOO’er?

Not necessarily. He just needs to clean up his mesh. Rather than defining it in hyperrelational terms that undermine objects themselves, Morton should, in my view, define the mesh topologically, as the sum total of all relations extant in a given spatiotemporal frame. In this way, the mesh complements Morton’s hyperobjects thesis, completing the object-oriented turn of the ecological thought. Hyperobjects are characterized by an ambiguous mereology, in that they cannot be locally manifested because of their massive distribution. In other words, manifestations of a hyperobject–for example, Earth–have achieved escape velocity for the objects they pertain. Hyperobjects remain fully objectal, however, despite their size, a point that is sometimes missed. Even though hyperobjects occupy a higher dimensional space than “smaller” objects to which they adhere, they are fully agential beings, capable of entering into and departing relations. Operationalizing the mesh as the summation of all objects, on the other hand, would undermine objects, turning the mesh into an ultimate hyperobject from which all other entities could never, even in theory, be severed. In effect, the mesh would become a single substance, an objectal form, with other objects being defined in terms of alienation from this ideal. Put simply, the mesh would be God, auscultating itself through the becoming-other of its constituent parts.

Instead, the mesh can be understood relationally, as the aggregate of all encounters between objects in a given assemblage. Just as a hyperobject can be parsed in terms of parts and wholes, so can the mesh. Thus, the mesh can be adapted to describe objects relating in various scales. If capitalism is a fictive hyperobject for Western economic entities, then the mesh encapsulates all commodified relations occurring within a capitalist framework in a given temporal frame. Like hyperobjects, the mesh can be scaled up or down, depending on the entities in question. Importantly, the mesh is not, itself, a relation, but a fictive entity bounded by prehension (if all relations are translations, then relations comprising the mesh are always already ‘sensual’, in the phenomenological sense of being ‘intentional’ deployed by Graham Harman). The key, here, is in the uncanniness of the mesh that parrots hyperobjectal incertitude, the inherent unfamiliarity of even the most familiar objects, or what Morton calls ‘strange strangers’. Meshed entities exist coexistentially, yet contingently, meaning that no matter how close they appear to one another, objects cannot achieve a speed great enough to outrun their finitude. Accordingly, when objects seemingly should be on a march toward intimacy through repetition of relations, the absence of each other’s being is made more and more present, the gulf of becoming–indeed, awareness of the lack of total interdependence–widened. Repetition of the withdrawn essential chasm births both reverence and horror, rendering the mesh a field of relational anxiety, within which objects are neither reducible to signification nor instrumentality, but expose processes of projection as an objectal withdrawal masquerading as a structurally individuated subjectivity.

Put a bit poetically, existence in the mesh implicates the contingent affirmation of an unseen Other refracted through the looking glass, instead of an enduringly entangled binary of self and not-self on either side of a prismatic plane. That said, relations within the mesh seek not the colorful space opened on the other side of the rabbit hole, but, in contrast, a fuller experience of descent, simply out of love for the act of falling.

PrOOOblems

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There are five major debates still raging with/in and with/out the object-oriented studies spectrum, in my opinion, years after the inception of the objectal trajectory of speculative realism. When we pull back the curtain, we see (in no particular order of importance):

  • Aesthetic criticism: By ‘aesthetic’, I mean sensory. That said, I find virtue in relating this question back to standard aesthetic discussions, such as art and textual critique, if only to employ a common site of analysis. Recently, I’ve argued against the idea of an object-oriented literary criticism, claiming that the idea of the ‘literary’ reduces the being of a text to a meta-aporia about signification. An alternative move promoted by Levi Bryant and Eileen Joy, however, seeks a middle ground between postmodern historicism and deconstruction (new historicism and new criticism, more specifically), in which the text is viewed as a thing-in-itself productive of multiple histories, an autopoietic actant capable of affecting other entities, similar to other objects. Criticism, then, moves from an excavation of meaning to an exploration of construction, of what is “built” from the the relations into which a text enters. This is an invaluable move away from what Bryant and Joy call ‘humanist criticism’, or reading strategies that close textual being by positing texts as carriers for encoded discursive meaning. For me, though, this brilliant–and I mean that sincerely–strategy recuperates textual affectivity within the frame of a conscious reader, albeit in a radically pluralized form. While disavowing authorial intent in favor of machinic productivity, anti-humanist criticism nevertheless avoids the becoming of a text, sytematically or objectally, by positing, say, The Brothers Karamazov as a homogenous entity, sans self-generated spatiotemporal specificity. Sans anatomy. Sans any anthrodecentric relation, like signifier to shape. In contrast, I contend that object-oriented ontology–and perhaps all aesthetic criticism–signals the birth and primacy of ‘object criticism’, which focuses on the point of relation, or translation, between the text-in-itself and other entities that it contacts. There is certainly a retained history here; Bibles have circulated throughout many assemblages in varying historical epochs, with consequences for humans and nonhumans alike. And Bryant and Joy’s lit crit proposal is exactly the kind of analytical methodology necessitated for object-oriented literary insight. What is important to remember, I maintain, is that it is only one type of relation involving the text, though admittedly an important one. In its simultaneous restriction of textual relation within the realm of human reading and exploration of textual affectivity on entities other than human consciousness, such a reading can be described as post-correlationist. It is the perfect complement to object criticism (a term that does not imply criticism of objects categorically, I should note), which investigates the way sensibility is partitioned at the point of translation between objects extant within a regime of attraction, where the text is merely one relating entity among others. To extend this discussion into a controversial realm, I’ll pose the following question: How would an object-oriented ontologist answer the question, “What is art?”

  • Fictional objects: For me, the whole game. Briefly, any metaphysics of objects must not only account for putatively imagined objects–like citizenship, security, and borders–to reflect an accurate representation of agential artifacts, but the manner in which these objects are made or become real for real objects, or circulate within the real world. Otherwise, one is left with a metaphysical parlance that can only account for shapative difference and becoming, and recuperates being, experience, and potential solely within objectal form. And that wouldn’t be much of a realist philosophy, would it? That would just be an utterly nonsensical variant of accidentalist naiveté in which the politics of be(com)ing is viewed as inconsequential.

  • Mereology: If you’ve never seen this word, here is a quick gloss: It indicates the relationship of parts to each other and the larger wholes that they comprise. One of the problems that comes up in discussions of object-oriented philosophies, particularly with newcomers, is the challenge of accounting for the independence of so-called substrate objects, like atoms, molecules, or cells. Since object-oriented ontology contends that every object is withdrawn from the relations into which it enters and retreats, and therefore obtains a reality in excess of any relation or set of relations, it must also account for how the being of a whole entity and its constituent parts can retain a non-relational reality without falling apart. To be fair, one could argue that real objects exist on equal footing with all other objects in the world because of relational equivalency, where no one relation is privileged above others. From what Levi Bryant calls a subtractive object-orientation, however, objects must be able to exist independent of their relations, meaning that whole entities and component entities each have autonomous being (in fact, the concept of a ‘whole’ entity can be somewhat misleading, in this sense, since the parts of one entity are wholes in and of themselves). As Bryant notes, this is easy enough to realize in the realm of social relations. I am currently writing this post from Hawai’i Nei, the state in which I reside. I, as a citizen of Hawai’i, am, thus, a part of my state, but the state would continue to exist, even if I moved. As a another example, consider Facebook. As someone with a Facebook account, I am (a little ashamedly) part of the Facebook community, but deactivating my account doesn’t destroy Facebook’s being. It’s a bit harder to conceptualize at the organic level, where hearts, tissues, and chloroplast would seem to be causal vectors of organic being. Yet, upon closer inspection, this is not the case. Much of a human’s body chemistry, to cite just one case, changes almost completely every seven years. Epidermal cells are lost; new ones take their place. According to my current age, that’s happened to me four times since my first birthday. Nonetheless, here I am. We can deduce, then, that a person’s body exists as an entity apart from its cells. The same if true of the cells, of course, as they don’t cease being cells just because they’ve been flaked off by scratching an itch or placed under a microscope. What is difficult to think through, though, is numerological mereology–how many objects comprise a syzygy, even at the level of every human consciousness?–and what justifications can be extrapolated from mereological analysis to describe the process of objectal formation and motility? We’re not used to thinking of armies, democracies, and ecosystems as objects with their own agency, independent of how their parts function. From the perspective of object-oriented mereology, however, this is exactly the case. Want an even more striking brain-teaser? Consider the mereology of a fictional object, like Emma Bovary or national security. Weird, huh?

  • Ontopolitics: Philosophy for philosophy’s sake has its place. On the other hand, I’ve said on several occasions, “Philosophy that breeds complacency endangers all being, all forms of being, so that even the possibility of being collapses under its own immovable weight.” Deliberately hyperbolic, the line is meant to indicate that philosophizing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Whether one is thinking in an Ivy League office or Tahrir Square, the space in which thought transpires is informed by (or relates to, if we’re being properly object-oriented) other objects in motion, assemblages, and systems. Many object-oriented theorists (especially beyond the big four), however, are reluctant to bring object-oriented research into the political spectrum, I assume for fear that doing so will unnecessarily politicize a ‘first principles’ movement. Object-oriented ontology doesn’t lead to any specific political commitments, after all, and more mainstream ontopolitical critiques are often predicated on the systems philosophies object-oriented theory stands against. Yet, suppression can’t be wished away on a magical (belief) carpet. And an object-orientation is radically democratic, in its aggressive insistence on equality, equality, equality. All beings existing on an equal plane, and all that. If OOO is going to continue flourishing, it’s practitioners, in my view, should embrace its emancipatory potential, even if mainstream political writers don’t always replicate the movement’s standard fare. Which brings me to my next point…

  • (Non-)ontological pluralization: More practical than theoretical, one can increasingly question the relation of object-oriented ontology to other philosophical schools of thought. Considered the most visible–and controversial–strain of speculative realism, OOO is not the only object-oriented theory gaining traction in academic halls, which have seen the emergence of vibrant materialism (Jane Bennett), thing theory (Bill Brown), and agential realism (Karen Barad), to name just a few. The concern, here, is the extent to which each of these ideas can coexist. In other words, does OOO’s emphasis on being occlude insights and/or engagement with other theories of objectality? I mention this concern because of a recent conflagration over questions posed by Jussi Parikka. If you’re unaware of what happened, Parikka, author of Insect Media, among other things, raised several concerns about OOO’s approach, for instance the extent to which it can speak to science and its utility for media studies. None of the questions were hostile; at least half of the responses from non-OOO’ers were. In the world of scholarship, we debate our theories with a passion that, at times, borders on zealotry. That’s great, so long as it remains agonistic, not antagonistic. At the heart of the tension, it seems, is the question of whether or not OOO is a systematic philosophy, a notion I reject. OOO’ers often appear systematic in the presentation of their ideas–Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology, Levi Bryant’s use of systems theory in formulating ‘onticology’–but one of the primary virtues of OOO, to me, is its injunctions against univocity. Makes sense, right? If there can be no single substance undermining objects, then there can be no single utterance articulating totalized understanding of objectality. Too often, though, misunderstanding obscures OOO’s inhered tendency toward democratization and the promiscuity of being. To me, there is one, and only one, criteria for obtaining the title ‘object-oriented thinker’: anthrodecentrism. Membership in the field of object-oriented studies (that’s studies, meaning “students” in the broad sense) requires an attempt to dislodge humans from positions of theoretical privilege. To be an object-oriented ontologist, one must decentralize being away from the exultation of human being, and there are a number of currently agreed upon points of reference for doing so (preservation of finitude, withdrawal, critique of correlationism, etc.). With the exception of disavowing correlationism and anthrodecentrism, however, whether or not those points will remain the standard for perpetuity is an open question, as is their relative importance to any given OOO’er. Therefore, we’re compelled to speak to one another across disciplinary and theoretical boundaries, while concurrently confronting our own philosophical biases. Otherwise, we slip into reification, and foreclose the richness of our own theses from benefiting, and benefiting from, other forms of inquiry, sinking our philosophies beneath the same sands that undermine objects themselves.

What am I missing?