Three Questions for Tim Morton on Object Oriented Ontology, Ecology, and Hegelianism

Originally published here. 

Tim Morton is the author of Hyperobjects (U Minnesota P, 2013), Realist Magic (OHP, 2013), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and over eighty essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music. He is Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English at Rice University.  He blogs at Ecology without Nature.

C. Derick Varn: What do you think are the immediate practical implications for treating what we currently call “nature” as inter-related biological objects?  Recently, I have seen you post that Graham Harman’s return to Heidegger was important because of the way philosophers like Derrida have used Heidegger.  Why do you think this is important? A few times on your blog, you have been writing the troubles with Hegelianism in Continental. Why do you think Hegelian thinking has been so problematic?

Tim Morton:  First I’ll say some things about Hegel, as Hegelianism is on my mind these days. You know how people become like their dogs? Or vice versa? Something similar happens in philosophy. This is in fact a Hegelian insight: ideas code for people to have them. Phenomenologically speaking you could say that you are attracted like a bee to honey to a certain kind of logical content of an idea. Ideas are somewhat autonomous from the person who thinks them, a little bit like the meme idea. So you are as it were a host for an idea. Different ideas select different hosts.

In my twenty-five years in the academy I’ve made some observations, totally amateur ones, about the kinds of host that ideas select for. One interesting feature seems to be that very often there is a blind spot in the person who becomes the idea-host, a blind spot that has precisely to do with the strange symbiosis between idea and idea-haver. The style of the host reveals something unconscious about the idea parasite.

So for instance, Derrideans (I am one) ca be religious control freaks (an interesting example would be the atheist side of the “radical atheism” debate).

Foucauldians can be power trippers who frequently use pathologization to control groups (discipline and punish!).

Hegelians have a tin ear for how they sound.

This last one is the key to my sense of the issues with Hegel, and this is the irony. It was Hegel who after all gave us this magnificent idea, and I think it’s a true idea, about ideas and their hosts. The very people who most fervently endorse Hegel are quite tone deaf when it comes to issues of “subject position” (in Althusserian) or “style” (in phenomenologese). They are deaf to their guy’s big discovery. I find this irony not accidental. Let me explain what I mean.

This feature—of how ideas select their hosts—is not extrinsic to philosophy, to the content of what is said. Indeed, as Hegel himself argues, quite brilliantly, it’s part and parcel of it. There is a symbiotic relationship between idea and host.

How do Hegelians sound?

If you are not a Hegelian, this is how they sound, sometimes. It is as if someone has hidden a little ball under one of three cups, and is asking you to guess which one. They already know where the ball is.

That’s the opening move. But then it goes on. There is a certain way of turning over the cups. A certain procedure must be followed, even though you are supposed not to know where the ball is. The ball hider (the Hegelian) himself (and I’m going to say “himself” as I associate this style with a certain masculinity), the ball hider also goes through the motions, like a parent with an infant: “Is it under here? Noooo….Is it under here? Noooo…aha! Here it is!”

It is as if the rules of the game are to hide the rules of the game, yet to reveal that they have been hidden. It is also as if there is a pre-programmed suspense as we build from (say) sense-certainty to the final glorious self-unfolding of the Absolute.

When I pointed this out, in particular about the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, I was immediately policed by a Hegelian online, in the following rather revealing terms. “He [underline he] who has made this remark has fallen at the first hurdle.” Tin ear, you see? Because he (the policeman, emphasis on man) has admitted that it is a game with a pre-programmed outcome. And that winning the game means becoming a Hegelian.

A journey with a known destination: like a Romantic piano sonata, in two ways. First you always return to home base (the tonic) no matter how much modulation happens: the adventure is to get really far out and then to return, like Shiva recognizing himself after an aeon of being everything else in the universe (to put it in provocatively orientalist terms that Hegel is allergic to). Secondly, because of equal temperament, your journey always occurs in a world of brown.

Equal temperament is the way to tune piano strings (and hence, in piano-centric modernity, all other instruments), slightly fudging the harmonic ratios between them to enable maximum journey possibilities. If you don’t do that, you end up with “wolf tones” (interesting use of a nonhuman, even threatening, “wild” animal) that sound like interference patterns between notes. Of course these wolf tones are quite lovely in their own right, but equal temperament bans them in advance in order to initiate the hide and seek journey.

The story of Western “classical” music since the advent of the Anthropocene, from Beethoven to Schoenberg to La Monte Young, has been the story of the gradual liberation of the piano from having to tell human emotional narratives in a pre-programmed sepia world. A rather object-oriented story if you like.

When you drop the human storyline, what you end up with quite quickly, in the move from Cage to Young, are drones and pure sine wave tones, whole number tuning called Just Intonation, and an emphasis on timbre (the physicality of a sound) rather than melody. What you end up with, in Hegelian, is the disturbing “narcissism” of A=A, the night in which all cows are black (both Hegelian terms as you know). What you end up with, in other words, is a moment at which the search for the Absolute has not even begun.

A=A is the nadir of “not getting it,” of “falling at the first hurdle”—or of not even trying to jump over the hurdle. Of simply sitting down and “occupying” the racetrack as it were, staging a sit in against this stupid pre-programmed race. It is labeled as “narcissism,” for instance in Žižek’s attacks on Buddhism, and I find narcissism to be the label of choice of the young Hegelians who are out in some force online at present. Hegel dismisses A=A as a parasite that finds a host in a primitive form of consciousness that he calls Buddhism.

The (wounded) narcissist tends to accuse the other of narcissism precisely insofar as he is disturbed by a loop whose echo he finds within himself. Thus while Foucauldians can be power trippers, Hegelians can be narcissistically deaf to how they sound in the ears of the other. And a symptom of this is their overuse of the term narcissistic to describe opposing views. This overuse is a symptom of the necessity of the dialectic to disavow A=A, to discover that A=A, like a little ball under a certain cup, is always already caught in the dialectic that will propel the story forwards to the self-realization of the Absolute. A=A is thus both inside and outside of Hegelian thought, a parasite that does not sit well in its Hegelian host.

What in A=A is Hegel afraid of, if we think like Freud for a moment that all philosophies are forms of paranoia, attempts to explain the world to defend against—what? A gap, a void, precisely the Kantian gap between phenomenon and thing. The basic Hegelian move against this gap is to assert that since I can think this gap, there is no gap.

OOO disturbs the Hegelian for two reasons, then. First OOO returns to the Kantian gap, as if Hegel had never mattered. The idealist solution to the Kantian gap is claimed to be false. Secondly, and this is more damaging to the Hegelian “narcissism,” the gap is located precisely in a thing, as the existence of a thing as such, without “my” (human) subject–world gap to make the thing real—or indeed anything else, since objects are ontologically prior to relations. Thus A (a thing) just is A: A=A. This “location-in-the-thing” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hegelian discovery of its dialectic in the thing, but with a crucial difference, which is precisely that the rules of the game are not decided in advance as idealist rules that make knowing the gap more real than A=A itself.

This is the quintessence of the OOO move. To return to A=A, to occupy that position, as it were, is to have exposed Hegelianism for what it is: a pre-programmed ruse that knows in advance that A=A must be disavowed/sublated, and the exact procedures of that disavowal/sublation. It goes without saying that this is caught up in a certain resistance to anarchism, which is why I use the term occupy.

The phenomenon–thing gap is not absolutely nothing at all—it is more like what is called nothingness, a meontic nothing as Tillich says. This is the real fear of the Hegelian, which is a fear of a weird presence in and as nothingness. The phrase A=A contains something. “Equals A” is something that happens to “A,” as it were. There is a slight distortion or movement of trace within that very formula, a happening of something. (Derrida has written on this with reference to Hegel explicitly.) A=A has something of the flavor of “This sentence is false” (the Liar). A contradiction that is already present, that turns the sentence into a strange loop or spectral, plasmic entity. Again, this differs from the Hegelian contradiction in the thing, insofar as I do not know in advance that A=A is simply an opaque blindness in me to this contradiction, but rather that A=A is already contradiction, or rather a double-truth (dialetheia), both true and false simultaneously. This is what the Hegelian narrative forecloses.

A night in which all cows are black still has cows, if we take the image as hiding in plain sight something on its own face—it’s not absolutely nothing at all. There are these cows everywhere, these ungraspable cows. It’s a universe of entities—I can think them, but I cannot directly perceive them, yet they are (physically) real: the Kantian universe where there are raindrops that are raindroppy, I can think them, they are not popsicles, but I can’t access the things in themselves. Which is also the OOO universe, in an expanded sense—to get from Kant to OOO all I do is repudiate the copyright control the (human) subject has on the phenomenon–thing gap and allow it to exist everywhere. So that there is a cow–night gap, a cow horn–cow gap, a cow stomach–cow tail gap, and so on. Even an A–A gap, or a cow–cow gap.

To exist is to be ever so slightly different from yourself, which is the secret of “narcissism”—autoaffection in the end is equal to heteroaffection. The most phobic image of A=A in Hegel is a Hindu image that he takes to be an image of Buddha “in the thinking posture” (as he puts it): baby Krishna inserting a toe into his mouth and sucking it, wondering why it tastes so sweet (Krishna Narayan). Hegel calls this “withdrawal into self,” a phrase with a contemporary and uncanny resonance with OOO: to exist for OOO is indeed to be withdrawn-into-oneself (Entzug). And Buddhism is the religion of this “being-within-self” (Insichsein).

Thus anything that looks like self-pleasuring is suspect for Žižek. So it is better to have an empty ritual than one suffused with (the wrong kind of) meaning, because that would betray something “narcissistic” about that meaning. New Agers are to be roundly condemned. This assault on autoaffection has so spooked actual Buddhists that it is common to defend oneself against it: “I am a Buddhist but I’m not one of those New Age Western Buddhists.” Thus a robust defense of Buddhist against Hegelianism must start with a shameless occupying of the dreaded narcissistic position.

There are numerous positions within post-Hegelian Western philosophy that can be used in this deployment. For instance, consider Zarathustra’s “Love your neighbor as yourselves, but first be such as love yourselves,” which sounds like it comes straight out of a Buddhist manual on what is called maitri, or even “worse,” from a self-help book. Then there is Derrida:

 Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutedly destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.   (“There Is No One Narcissism”)

A fear of nothingness that is precisely the fear of an uncanny presence, a presence that is the starting position of Hegelianism itself, A=A. A presence that is me but I disavow it, “destroy [it] in advance” (Derrida). There is something homophobic about Hegel’s deployment of the image of Krishna sucking his toe. He goes on to deplore the fact that lamas (Tibetan incarnate teachers) are brought up in a feminine passive way. It is as if what is being warded off is that phobic sequence popular in nineteenth century sexology and diet: narcissism >> masturbation >> excess energy >> more masturbation >> homosexuality. This is why Cornflakes was invented. Young boys who eat too much meat are prone to an excess of psychic energy which results in this pathologized narcissistic loop.

I object to Hegelians because they think I am a narcissistic cocksucker, and because they claim this is bad, and because they claim that they are not. The ecological project—namely the transition to a genuinely post-modern age—depends very much on our admission that we are all narcissistic cocksuckers.

This helps me to answer the other questions. Let’s consider Harman’s turn to Heidegger in spite of, or around, or underneath (or whatever) Derrida. That has to do on the one hand with the idea that nothingness is not just a feature of sentences. And it also has to do with an intimacy with objects, an intimacy that Heidegger calls the “ready-to-hand.” Here I will simply quote the wing mirror of your car, which is an object-oriented ontologist: “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.” It is this closeness that makes them impossible to grasp, an intimacy, not a distance, a distance that must only be a feature of some kind of aestheticizing technology of framing. For Heidegger, this distancing is already at work in Plato’s Idea, but for OOO, it is also in pre-Socratic materialisms that seek to reduce the inherent inconsistency of things by positing some kind of thing (such as measurement for Protagoras or the flux for Heraclitus) as more real than other things.

Since here we reach a terminus of Western philosophy, it isn’t surprising that Harman has reached out to nonwestern ones such as are found in Islam and Buddhism. Foucault: “it is the end of the era of Western philosophy. Thus if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” This is in marked contrast with Laruelle, who without reflection repeats the basic Hegelian gesture of recounting the history of philosophy as the story of (white) Western philosophy.

I see the OOO intimacy with nothingness—the ungraspability of the thing—as part of a transition through and under nihilism, which Heidegger started, and which deconstruction continues, and which I believe OOO begins to complete. The post-modern ecological age is an age that will have transitioned through nihilism. My objection to eliminative forms of realism is not that they are nihilistic, but that they are not nihilistic enough. They are not nihilistic enough because they disavow the intimacy of things, an intimacy that is not based on constant presence (metaphysics of presence) but that is precisely ungraspable as such.

Now I can answer the first question. I take ecology to be the thinking and practice of this intimacy, the intimacy your car tells you about on a regular basis. Nature is an “object in mirror,” as it were, that is taken to be over yonder, underneath me, in my cells or in my atoms, “over there” in the wilderness. To riff on the wing mirror statement, Nature appears to be “as far as away as it appears” to the human.

Nature is in this sense the opposite of ecology, and it is not accidental that the modern concept Nature is born at the inception of the Anthropocene, as a kind of “schizophrenic defense” against the actual direct intervention in Earth’s crust by humans. A fantasy that prevents us from seeing how we are always caught in things, even as (and ironically especially when) we feel as if we have achieved escape velocity from them, like Oedipus fleeing his supposed Corinthian father.

Rice University

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