THE REAL, THE SENSUAL, THE EROTIC
Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) is a philosophical position that dates as far back as the late 1990s and has been especially influential in architecture and the arts. Although it is often stylistically flashy, OOO pursues an ancient Greek tradition – that began with Aristotle – by focusing on the status of individual things. Rather than reducing objects downward to their swarm of tiny subcomponents, or upward to the way they affect each other and the human mind, OOO treats objects as more than their parts and less than their effects. This means that objects as familiar as earthworms, scissors and chairs have a certain air of mystery about them. Nothing can be reduced to the knowledge we have of it. Although knowledge is still important for OOO, it leaves much room for other forms of cognition, such as aesthetic experience, speculative wonder and the erotic attraction of fetish objects. Let’s consider some of the features that have given the object-oriented standpoint so much appeal and allure.
For OOO, objects vary in size and character, ranging from forests, protons and black holes to the United Nations, FC Barcelona, Taylor Swift, unicorns and the square root of seventeen. Object-oriented authors often use such random lists of entities to remind our readers of the plenitude and diversity of the world, as opposed to modern philosophy with its dismal opposition of human thought on one side and everything else on the other. We call these lists of beings ‘Latour Litanies’ in honour of the French philosopher Bruno Latour, who has an especial gift for producing them. For instance, in his book Pandora’s Hope, he amusingly suggests that ‘Golden Mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, and other black swans and white ravens… all occupy the same space–time as Hamlet, Popeye and Ramses II.’1 The effect of this manoeuvre is called a ‘flat ontology.’ This means that, philosophically speaking, all objects should be treated equally as objects whether they are real, fictional, physical, mental, natural, artificial or even impossible. After all, the square circle is an object too.
But this is also the point where OOO departs sharply from Latour. According to his Actor-Network Theory (ANT), an object (or ‘actor,’ in his terminology) is real insofar as it affects something else. Raindrops strike houses and moisten the shirts of pedestrians, and for Latour this is why they are real. Sherlock Holmes solves fictional mysteries and impresses readers, and these effects make him real as well, even though he is not real in the commonsensical meaning of the term. By contrast, OOO follows the contrary intuition that everything is more than its current effects on all other things. I am currently writing an article, yet I might just as easily purchase a car, fly to New York, organise pirate operations in the Red Sea, or inhale smuggled opium from a diamond-encrusted hookah. This indicates that the reality of an object is a surplus lying beneath its immediate actions, and even beyond all its possible actions. I am not the sum total of all of my current and possible activities; rather, I must first exist for all these activities to be possible. Let’s call these surplus objects ‘real objects,’ and emphasise that they are deeper than anyone’s knowledge of them. Even if we observe an object under hundreds of different circumstances, we can never truly exhaust every last one of its properties or potentials. Indeed, all human experience is a feeble effort to sound the depths of things. In the end, we cannot even grasp ourselves directly as real objects: far from being direct, introspection is such a murky and confusing fog that the best psychoanalysts and marriage counsellors earn fortunes worthy of a warlord or a hedge fund manager. Without such unknowability, language would consist solely of literal propositional facts, and the alluring ambiguity of shaded innuendo would be extinguished, removing all trace of the erotic from our planet.
Yet there is a second kind of object that is not mysterious at all. Let’s call these ‘sensual objects,’ not because they are encountered by the senses – the intellect is stuck at this same level too – but because we encounter them with an immediate sensual or carnal enjoyment. The sunflowers on the table next to me are not just deeply hidden flowers-in-themselves, concealed in the cavernous cellar of ‘being.’ Instead, they are objects of immediate contact, whether for the ends of pleasure or of pain. Their radiant faces invite me to mimic their turn towards the sunlight, just as their searing yellow and orange hues threaten me vaguely with the madness of Van Gogh. Here we are not far removed from Jacques Lacan’s distinction between the object of desire (as that which we never attain) and the material of enjoyment (as that in which we revel with immediate pleasure). Naturally, some of these sensual objects have no counterpart in reality: a seduction turns out to be a fragile illusion, or a nagging worry is revealed as a paranoid dead end. Yet most of what we experience sensually does turn out to have some link with a real object: ranging from the items we consume for breakfast to the lovers we summon from the other side of the city. Real objects are those that exist quite apart from anyone paying attention to them, while sensual objects are those that only exist in someone’s enjoyment or direct perception. The real sunflowers are there whether I look at them or not, but the sensual sunflowers arise like magic only when someone savours their existence.
QUALITIES WITHOUT BUNDLES
But the gulf between real and sensual is just one of the fissures that cut through OOO’s world. Another is the difference between objects and their qualities, which is found in both real and sensual forms. Many philosophers remain lazy followers of David Hume’s groundless claim that objects are merely ‘bundles of qualities.’2 According to this view, ‘cactus’ is simply a nickname for certain qualities frequently seen occurring together. Pulpy dark-green flesh, along with numerous spiky or spiny protuberances, come as a bundle so often that we wrongly imagine a unified thing holding these traits together, despite no proof that any such thing exists. It is remarkable how influential this view has been, despite its poor match for what happens in experience. As the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl first noted, this is not at all what happens when we encounter any given thing.3 Instead, we recognise the cactus as one and the same thing even when viewing it from different sides, in elated or despondent moods, and at various shifting moments in the burning sun or melancholic dusk of the deep Arizona desert. Experience shows us that each thing sparkles with kaleidoscopic variation from one second to the next. Yet rather than view each appearance as a different ‘bundle’ from what came before and after, we tacitly endorse the existence of a single cactus with wildly shifting characteristics. Stated differently, objects have only a loose relation with their own qualities. The ancient Greeks noticed this point too: sad is always sad, and happy is always happy, but what makes Socrates a real substance is that he can shift from sad to happy with ease.4
Nor is this true only for the sensual objects that humans can experience directly. Even though real objects are never directly observable, we can easily deduce that they have a loose relation with their own qualities too. Quite apart from any perception of them, they must obviously have multiple qualities. If they were merely featureless units, then all objects would be interchangeable and have precisely the same effects: a melon would be no better or worse than a bomb, and an ocean no different from a star. This point was made in the early 18th century by one of philosophy’s great masterminds, G.W. Leibniz. We also cannot identify a real object with the sum total of all its real qualities, for reasons too complex to address here. This means that even on the level of the real, objects and their qualities both have and do not have each other. Among other consequences, this loose relation is what makes metaphor – and all aesthetic experience – possible. Homer’s The Odyssey is able to contain the famous phrase ‘the wine-dark sea’ only because wine-darkness can be severed from wine and attached instead to the sea. Without such looseness, human cognition would be locked in a graveyard of prosaic and literalist regulation.
We now have a simple yet surprisingly turbulent OOO model defined by two – and only two – dualisms: real vs sensual, and object vs quality. If we abbreviate each of these four terms by their first letters, and accept the premise of phenomenology that there are no objects without qualities or qualities without objects, this makes for four possible object/quality pairings. There are concealed real objects with their equally concealed real qualities (RO-RQ), real objects that hide behind their directly available qualities (RO-SQ), sensual objects that can be analysed in such a way as to hint at their real qualities (SO-RQ), and finally the case where a unified sensual cactus – or other object – remains present before us despite the swirling diversity of its various spikes and needles when seen from different angles and distances (SO-SQ). Generally speaking, the work of the intellect aspires to break down such distinctions and reduce them all to a single root, but OOO revels in driving a wedge between both types of objects and qualities. Indeed, OOO method in every field involves the analysis of the various permutations by which objects bond with and separate from their qualities. This has been done for objects as historically specific as the Dutch East India Company. 5
ART, PHILOSOPHY, KNOWLEDGE
Let’s return to a topic that we brushed against earlier: the difference between knowledge on the one hand and art and philosophy on the other. This claim is somewhat unusual, since for the past 400 years, the great success and prestige of the natural sciences has impelled most philosophers to emulate them. There are just two basic kinds of knowledge that can be had of anything under the sun: we can explain what a thing is made of, or explain what it does. The first is the downward reduction of a thing to its parts or its history, and this is what OOO calls ‘undermining.’ There is nothing wrong with this kind of knowledge, of course. Without understanding the organs of human anatomy, the elements of a chemical compound, or the story of how the present world came to be, we would be endangered in our efforts to survive as a species. Yet breaking an object down into its compositional or historical elements is clearly not enough. No object can be fully explained in terms of its pieces: the object itself is always something more than what brought it into being, just as a child’s personality and destiny are not fully grasped through reading the biographies of its parents. In technical terms, objects are what philosophers call ‘emergent,’ and when we undermine an object, we lose sight of what makes it emergent.
The same problem occurs in reverse when we try to know an object by reducing it upward to what it does. A familiar compound such as water, for instance, is well known for the temperatures at which it freezes or boils, and for its capacity to quench animal thirst; it can do hundreds of other things as well. But who knows how many other things water might one day do which we still have no idea of? It is a surplus that cannot be exhaustively deployed simply by putting it to all known uses. Water is capable of change and development; it is filled with surprises even for the venerable Galapagos tortoise and for Poseidon in his oldest old age. Just as water is more than the hydrogen and oxygen that compose it, it is less than the effects it has on other things. Stated differently, water itself is something midway between its parts and
What water itself is, is something that cannot be converted into any sort of knowledge at all, given that knowledge only comes in two varieties: the downward reduction and the upward kind. No direct sort of literal prose or quantitative analysis of an object can get at what it really is. This requires another kind of cognition that is indirect, allusive, insinuating, teasing or hinting. The scientist will treat such adjectives with contempt, since they are the opposite of knowledge and seem to be merely cheap and theatrical. Yet there is much cognitive value in areas of reality where knowledge does not reach. Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ is merely tedious and trivial if viewed as a form of knowledge: in scientific terms, red wine and the Mediterranean Sea reflect approximately the same wavelength of light. Even if true, this statement would not be especially interesting. And it is certainly not what Homer means: instead, the ancient poet exploits the purported identity in colour between wine and sea to insinuate deeper and more elusive similarities between them. The same holds for philosophy, which was born as philosophia or love of wisdom rather than wisdom itself. Those who have read Plato’s dialogues know the brilliance of Socrates, yet this brilliance is not that of the modern scientist. Socrates repeatedly asks for the definitions of things, yet never once does he attain such definitions. By circling the thing from different distances, negating certain provisional claims to know it, and hinting obliquely at what it might be, the Socratic method brings us to the point of knowing a thing without knowing it: a kind of ‘learned ignorance,’ as Nicholas of Cusa would later
call it.6 Metaphor, analogy and innuendo are not unknown to philosophy, but the artist turns them into a veritable castle of cognition.
Of course, there is also the possible objection that OOO cannot be true, for the simple reason that in fact nothing is real at all. According to this view, we live in a massive simulation produced either by the heavily processed media landscape of contemporary life, or – as some physicists actually hold – because the universe is a hologram that only exists in two genuine spatial dimensions while simulating the third. The French thinker Jean Baudrillard was often pilloried in his own lifetime for his idea that everything is a simulation, yet his work has aged surprisingly well. This may be in part because technologies of simulation have increased their reach over our present-day existence: from virtual classrooms during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the rise of virtual reality and sex robots, to our looming collective fear of so-called ‘deep fake’ videos that are impossible to distinguish from genuine ones. But quite apart from this evident increase in Baudrillardian technologies, there is a surprising grain of sober realism in his writings.
What many readers forget is that Baudrillard is not just the philosopher of simulacra replacing the classical real, he is also the thinker par excellence of seduction, the topic of one of his least appreciated but most ingenious books.7 Consider the case of a genre utterly rejected by the enlightened person of knowledge: horoscopes. It would be a philosophical error to treat astrology as a nullity simply because it does not meet someone’s rigorous scientific standards. Yet what Baudrillard tells us about horoscopes is that we can be seduced by our sign, or perhaps our entire astrological birth chart. When a rationalist expends too much energy debunking the anti-scientific character of astrology, they miss the new reality that is generated when someone fuses their self-conception with the fortune or fate proposed by the position of planets at one’s birth.
What makes such seduction potentially so important is that modern civilisation has been so obsessed with dividing the world outside humans from the human interpretation or knowledge of that world. Since modern existence revolves around the supposed quest for human freedom, it might seem like the height of idiocy to decide one’s future based on the spread of a tarot deck or the halting-point of a roulette wheel. Yet this is what seduction is – the sacrifice of freedom to a fate, however flimsy the outlines of that fate might be. Still under the spell of modernity, we continue to think that freedom is what we want. But presented each day with an increasingly boring list of options on all fronts, what we really crave is destiny: we want birds and dice and other signs to teach us what we were born to do, what we alone can do.
THE BURNING BUSH
In this sense, everyone carries a private storehouse of memories in which omens or signals or private obsessions seduced us in one direction rather than another. By definition, these memories are the most personal treasures we have, and they are not to be shared lightly. For that reason, I will only offer the simulacrum of destiny here, an incident in my life so absurd that no one would take it for a sign of actual personal fate, and some will not believe it happened at all. Yet it did happen. The date was 4 July 1993, America’s great national holiday when I was twenty-five years old. For various reasons, life had brought me to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city where all who lack independent means are condemned either to manual labour or restaurant work. In the late afternoon, I went out for a walk into the dead centre of the place, in the vicinity of the New Mexico state capitol. With no one in sight, I came upon the most impossible fateful object one can imagine: a burning bush. The flames continued for several minutes before disappearing in a flash.
Like anyone else, excepting those with delusions of prophetic grandeur, I could only laugh – in the moment – at the absurdity of this event. And the laughter was repeated when I retold the tale that evening to my brother and several close friends, all of them my housemates in that era of student poverty that we shared. I did not then, and would not now, claim that the presence of YHWH was signalled in the flames I encountered that day. Indeed, when looking back on this memory, I am forced to experience it in a purely Baudrillardian way, as an almost grotesque simulacrum of prophetic biography, one that could almost seem like insulting parody to believers. But even at the point of disclaiming all belief in a real referent of the burning bush, it became all the more seductive. Surely that day was a turning point of some sort? What did it mean? Though I will keep all conclusions to myself, let it be said that ever since that day, there has been an extra chill in the air whenever anything even slightly unusual happens with
plants or birds or playing cards in my vicinity. I became less interested in ‘freedom’ as an abstract ideal, and more attuned to possible messages from outside, including those with no meaning at all.
- Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, p. 161.
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.
- Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J.N. Findlay, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1970.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett, Indianapolis, 2016.
- Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2016.
- Nicholas of Cusa, ‘On Learned Ignorance’, in Selected Spiritual Writings, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1997, pp. 19–35.
- Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. B. Singer, CTHEORY BOOKS, Montreal, 2001.