object-oriented rhetoric

Tim Morton on poetry, aesthetics, and OOO

Morton has a piece in the latest New Literary History (behind the Project Muse paywall I'm afraid) that investigates an OOO literary criticism and takes up Shelley's Defence of Poetry. I'm sure the piece will evoke the now familiar concerns, complaints, and critiques regarding questions of politics/ideology, so I will leave those matters for others today. I will also say that I am not particularly interested in defending (or attacking) poetry or literary criticism. Morton does make an argument for why poetry (and thus the study of poetry) is particularly valuable from an OOO perspective. For me the argument is not so convincing that I would leave by the objects I do study and take up the study of poetry, but Morton does explain why the study of poetry would be valuable from an OOO perspective. 

In a nutshell, Morton follows Harman in contending that aesthetics is the basis of all causality/relations. Why? Because objects never truly encounter one another (because objects withdraw); instead objects only encounter the appearance of other objects: an appearance that both is and isn't that object. An encounter with appearances is an aesthetic encounter. I suppose the argument then goes that poetry is a special kind of investigation into aesthetics and thus particularly worthy of study. I don't know that I accept the poetry over other objects part of the argument, but I'm certainly fine with the "why not study poetry?" argument on these grounds. 

So what does it mean to think about all encounters as aesthetic, as encounters of appearance? The first place one might want to go is with what we typically think of as exchanges of physical force among objects: the billiard balls, stubbing one's toe, etc. We would need to recognize that aesthetics communicate force. And we already acknowledge this when we speak of the way art evokes a feeling. Morton points out how our ability to articulate these encounters is always partial. Slap someone in the face and we can measure the amount of force in the blow, and we might even measure the body's reaction. But the slap also generates embarrassment, pain, anger, etc. Furthermore the hand and the face can only partially interact; they cannot fully know one another. Finally, the slap itself might be understood as its own object in which the hand and face are partial participants, along with a host of other objects, including the one that makes slapping into a particular kind of cultural activity. Morton takes up Shelley's example of the Aeolian harp: basically the harp version of wind chimes. The wind and the harp encounter one another as appearances and produce this music, a third object. 

For me, the most interesting part of the essay is Morton's treatment of space and time, particularly as it relates to process. OOO sets up process as its primary conceptual opponent and identifies process philosophy as contending that there is some amorphous materiality and procedurality that precedes objects. Space and time might be viewed that way, as the founding materiality and process into which objects are placed. But Morton suggests that time and space emerge from the relations among objects, not the other way around: "space and time

are aspects of the difference(s) between an object and itself. Objects
“time.” A theory of motion is now no problem. Objects can move without
a prime mover and without some supervenient dynamism, simply
because their essence is playing leapfrog with their appearance" (214).

This opens some productive questions. If we are going to generate space, time, and all relations out of this fundamental difference between an object and itself, what it is the perceptive mechanism that allows this to occur? What is the medium the communicates the perception? For example, Morton's literary-critical audience would be familiary with the mirror stage when we contend that the human subject arises to create this kind of difference in consciousness. For there to be an appearance there has to be a perceiver, right? If this perceiver and perception generate space and time then there is literally nowhere and no-when for an object to exist prior to its apperance. Relation then becomes integral to the object. There is no object unless the object can appear, minimally for itself. 

So I am interested in this perceptual mechanism: the fundamental, ontological operation that allows the quark, the sandwich, the tire, and the rain cloud to perceive itself and enter space/time. There are a couple of things we can know for certain about these machines in an OOO universe. They cannot overmine or undermine objects. That is, they aren't the primary building blocks of all objects (undermining) and they aren't some overaching metaphysical condition that encapsulates all objects (overmining). They are also not some middle-world precondition, which is what space-time would be if it weren't being generated by objects. These machines are clearly not deterministic. They produce appearances (or expressions, as I would prefer to term them). They are quasi-causal (i.e. non-deterministic) producers of expressivity. NOT the specific expression. And to be clear here, expression/appearance is not something that comes from "inside" the object; it is strictly a product of external relations, even when the object relates to itself. 

Perhaps you can see where I am going here. Given what at least seems to me to be the necessity for these kinds of expressive machines, I am perplexed by the identification of a post-Deleuzian philosophy, DeLanda in particular, as an intellectual foe here. No doubt there are differences. And certainly there are versions of Deleuze that maybe do suggest the lava-lampy materiality that Morton often identifies as wrong-headed. But I don't read DeLanda that way. DeLanda is gestured toward in this essay but never directly cited, so it's hard to know what Morton specifically is referencing here.  Maybe I am not perplexed though. The agonistic nature of humanistic discourse often requires us to distance ourselves most fiercely from the concepts with which we are most closely related. In this respect it is crucial for OOO to indicate that it is NOT some form of Deleuzianism. To a lesser degree it distances itself from other forms of speculative realism. So I certainly do not want to suggest that OOO is just like ______. Who would? However I do think that there is some useful thinking through of this issue of the minimal mechanisms of relationality out there that are not incongruent with OOO. This is what I see Levi doing, actually. 

So in any case, my take away from Morton's essay is that I continue to remain very interested in his investigations of aesthetics, space, and time, and I am increasingly convinced that there are some productive opportunities out there in making connections between his work and the work I (and many others) are doing with assemblages, networks, and such.

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