object-oriented rhetoric

Latour and correlationism

Earlier this month, Levi had a post discussing his reservations regarding the term correlationism. His concern, as I understand it, is that we have reached a point where, at least in some circles, the declaration that somthing is "correlationist" has become a move to dismiss it out of hand. Levi, on the other hand, wants to be able to hold onto to the claim that different entities perceive differently (as a correlationist would). He takes up the example of different entities observing electro-magnetic waves and writes:

If the term “realism” is problematic, then this is because it suggests that the project isepistemological or one of deciding which form of access to the world is the true way the world is. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to decide whether the mantis shrimp, my best friend’s father, or the cat have truer access to the world.  They have different access to the world.  Nonetheless, the term “realism” is still indispensable for two reasons.  First, it is necessary to retain a realism of observers or monads.  The mantis shrimp can’t be reduced to my access to the mantis shrimp, but is an observer that exists in its own right.  The mantis shrimp is irreducible to what it is for me or anyone else.  Second, and this is really the same point, electro-magnetic waves are irreducible to how various beings have access to them.  

I was thinking about this point while discussing Morton's Realist Magic in class yesterday. We had read the introduction to the book (along with a couple of Tim's other essays), and we were discussing his central claim that "the aesthetic dimenstion is the causal dimension." In class, there was some uncertainty over the meaning of aesthetic and some wondering if this claim didn't end up as something much like weak correlationism. This uncertainty arose, I think, from thinking of aesthetics as a product of symbolic behavior. However, I see aesthetics differently, as I think Morton does, as a sensation or feeling. 

In any case, I was working through this with the students in the class, something struck me about correlationism in relation to Latour's critique of modernity. Specifcally, the correlationist argument, while refuting the "native realist" position it imagines as its opponent, holds on an important premise in naive realism: that a real world exists in something like the way realism describes, though we cannot have access to it. Now there are some extreme idealist positions that might not agree to this, but generally speaking correlationism is about an epistemological limit: what we can know about a real world that is out there. It strikes me that that "real world" is still largely understood in modern terms. 

Harman's object-oriented move is to contend that all objects, not just humans, encounter this epistemological limit: all objects only know the world in their own terms. As such, it's not that objects are out there being "real" in the conventional sense but we can't access their "realness." Objects are real, but reality is something different, weirder as the OOO folks like to say. Morton takes up quantum physics to argue objects can occupy contradictory positions, which means that they are ontologically unknowable; objects are real but they cannot be known, not because of our limits, but because of the way objects exist. Another way I might think about this is in terms of the end of the universe. According to at least one theory, the universe will end cold. It will continue to expand until it reaches a state of entropy. At that point, there will be zero information left. No knowledge. As we might take from cybernetics, information requires energy; information is energetic. To know something about the world is to do work: burn calories, drain laptop batteries, etc. Once we do away with the modernist's real world, the modernist-correlationist concern of not being able to access it doesn't make much sense. Instead, "knowing" becomes a way of doing work, of building alliances (to use Latour's terms). What we know is "real" in much the same way as anything else might be real. Knowing is as real as running. Inasmuch as any activity is real, the act of knowing is something. Knowledge as some kind of transmission or storage is also real. These are real objects unto themselves, built from other objects (as all objects are). As Latour suggests in his compositionist manifesto, some compositions are better than others. As Bryant suggests in the post mentioned above, some theories are better than others: "the Vikings thought that lightning occurred when the god Odin struck his hammer– and our theories of lightning might turn out to be mistaken as well –but lightning can’t be reduced to whatever some group of people happen to say about it.  There is a reality to lightning and some theories of lightning will be true and others false."

Once you can move into this position, you no longer face the prospect of trying to circumvent correlationism to get at the real world or the prospect of reconciling yourself to the fact that you will never really know anything about the world (i.e. the everything is text/representation). Instead, knowing becomes building real relations with real objects. Even though those objects do not exist in a way that would allow for the Truth as we have fantasized it, they are real enough to do work. The challenge then becomes one not of finding out the truth but of discovering the possibilities for composing.

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