Timothy Morton

Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality

    3. Magic Life 3. Magic Life > The Trouble with Lava

    The Trouble with Lava

    We should now be able to take stock of some theories of persistence that are on the market today. Problems arise when we start to take the joyous, frenzied periodic activity of the disco of the present moment for real aspects of real objects. The problem consists of turning this vision into an ontotheology. In this case, a process is just an atom, a lava-lampy kind of one, as I shall explain. The world is reducible to blobs and flows, hunks and chunks. [20] Inconsistency is gone, along with a lot of other things. Gone are the cats, the copper wire, the Oort Cloud at the edge of the Solar System. In their place we have flows of lava-like substance that only manifest as cats and copper wire in some vague sense—often, given the ravages of overmining, only for humans or for minds.

    Most of what passes for acceptable ontology these days—when people dare to do it at all—is just a form of atomism. An atom is something that can’t be cut any further. We think of them as little shiny ping-pong balls like the ones we saw in high school chemistry. This kind of atomism is deemed uncool. So various substitutes are invented, which I find only to be “new and improved” versions of the same thing:

    A process is an atom, just a lava-lampy one.
    A string is an atom, just a sub-quantal one.
    A quantum is an atom, just an indeterminate or “intra-active” one (to use Karen Barad’s formula). [21]

    Atoms reign supreme, two and a half thousand years after Democritus. These processes, despite the abundant PR in their name, are reifications of things. [22] Let us explore how.

    If you really want to be a far-out materialist, you should go for monism, like Parmenides, Spinoza or David Bohm. Or drop matter and say that it’s all controlled by mind, like Anaxagoras. If you change the names and substitute the latest findings for “water” and “fire” you pretty much get the pre-Socratics. The return to pre-Aristotelian scientism (where you make a decision about what constitutes the world—some kind of flux or some kind of apeiron, fire, water and so on), can’t account for change in a thorough way. Change is fetishized at the level of appearance—but not explained. The materialist decision inhibits it. All you have to do is substitute names: for Heraclitus use Deleuze or Whitehead, for Barad say Anaximander and so on. Aristotle’s response is as forceful now as it was to the pre-Sophists: if everything is a reflection, if everything is attributable to everything else, then nothing can ever change. [23]

    That’s where scientism gets you: right back where we started in the sixth century BC. It’s about time humanists started telling scientists how to think again, as science seems to be defaulting to some quite old stereotypes. Which brings us again to OOO, the only non-reductionist, non-atomic ontology on the market, and one that is a lot more Aristotle-proof than the regular ones.

    A majority of post-postmodern thinking is a regression, not a progression. It represents a desperate attempt to construct a “new and improved” version of the good old Nature that Derrida and others erased. This time it’s autopoietic, processual, lava-lampy. I call it lava lamp materialism. It appears to evoke a certain form of contemporary joy: “Hey, look at me! I’m totally entangled with not-me!” “I am the walrus! And I’ve got the quantum theory to prove it.” Do you though? A counter-argument might demonstrate that quantum theory is profoundly object-oriented. [24] Quantum theory decisively shows how objects really do exist separately from one another. It positively guarantees this: it would make a nonsense of entanglement, a basic property of (at least) tiny things, if they were the same thing. Furthermore, immersion in the not-me is frequently seen from an infinite distance, as if on TV. So if we follow the attitude this thinking implies, it turns out that there is one entity in the Universe that isn’t entangled: consciousness. And I, the lava-lamp materialist, can judge it, from outside of itself … Lava-lamp materialism keeps returning to the square one of Cartesian dualism. And in the end, it’s just a form of atomism. Minds, pizzas and black holes become emergent effects of processes. It would be better to stop reinventing the wheel of Nature.

    Process philosophy is in danger of not accounting for causality, only skimming along the phenomenal surface of events. [25] If instead we think processes as procedures (algorithm-like operations with definite steps) we might get closer to causality. Lava lamps exhibit an aesthetics that appeals to process philosophy. But they also have to do with atomism and causality. Consider lava flowing through the lamp. At time T1 the lava will be at lamp point a. At time T2 the water will be at lamp point b. It seems elementary that on this view time is an external framework relative to the water flow. The lamp, on this analogy, is time, as the liquid travels through it in a decisive direction. Time is external to the process.

    Process philosophy fails to account for the one thing that makes it attractive to people—escaping from the static. Every process requires a static frame (the lamp) in which the process can take place. The flow of water in a hose is an atomic unit of process. Of course it’s not a little ball, but it has a temporal front and a back and it moves relative to a static container. Same thing with my lava lamp: it’s a blob, not a ball, but it’s consistently itself relative to a static container and a linear time sequence.

    On the view of process-relational materialism, entities unfold in time. In keeping with the denigration of the static, we shall call them “achievements”—a gerundive, a noun based on a verb, and verbs are better than nouns, because they tell us more explicitly about the underlying process-stuff of which things are made. A mat is matting, and a cat is catting, and entities are achievements. Let’s plot the evolution of an achievement:

    Figure 2: Genesis of an “Achievement.” Image by Ian Bogost. Permission granted by the author.
    Figure 2
    Genesis of an “Achievement.” Image by Ian Bogost. Permission granted by the author.

    The T axis is time. The A axis is achievement. It makes no difference how this achievement happens: other entities, one entity melting into different shapes. Perhaps this entity is evolution, God, novelty, or vitalism. Let’s just assume it happens. A blob begins to somewhat resemble an apple. At the bottom of the lava lamp (time T1) the blob is just a blob. By the time it’s reached the top, the blob has morphed into an apple-like achievement (time T2). At some future date it will melt into something else, perhaps. There may be other blobs that interfere with its apple-esque beauty, and so on.

    Leave aside any concerns about the A axis. Ignore the fact that the apple-blob is more blob than apple (some more fundamental goo underwrites its appleness). Ignore the possibility that the apple-blob only resembles an apple-blob in the eyes of apple-blob users (you, me, some worms, and so forth). On this score its intrinsic appleness is simply a function of how it is “perceived,” a classic case of overmining. Leave all that aside, and focus only on the terms internal to the diagram itself. Simply focus on the fact that at T1 the proto-apple is a mere blob, while at T2 it’s an apple-oid blob. This explains everything we need to know about how apples come to be—except for the temporal frame in which the becoming occurs. We need T and A to account for the entities that manifest in the lava lamp. A major fact of our reality—time—can’t be explained ontologically, it can only be assumed.

    Relativity will not help here, if you feel like defending lava lamp materialism. Relativity simply means that the frame is also blobby (Gaussian) rather than rigid (Galilean). It’s still a frame, still ontologically outside the entity. Imagine wrapping the graph around an orange. Congratulations. You now have the exact same problem, wrapped around an orange. Quantum theory won’t help either. Make time’s arrow reversible so that the apple-oid can speak to the blob faster than light and cause itself to achieve itself. Or invent a totally new dimension and let the blob jump out of the frame (into a different or larger frame) like in string theory. Same problem: no scientistic fact-candy whatsoever will make lava lamp materialism hold up against this refutation. This way of refuting materialism is roughly how Aristotle did it. Aristotle has problems, but let’s not fix them by regressing to a pre-Aristotelian view.

    The very thing that seems to be the case—we build Einstein-like temporality into our ontology—is the one thing that’s missing. If you really want to do an Einstein, time has to emanate from the object itself. The fact that time is an external container for lava lamp activity is simply another way of saying that the lava is contained within the lamp. The lava finds itself on the inside of a lamp, suspended in the lamp’s capacious medium. The lava lamp form of materialism, in short, can’t account for time. All we now know is that the lava is in a lamp … which is the information with which we started. This leads to a wider question concerning the reductionism inherent in process philosophies. How come jumping away from the manifest is more realistic than staying with it? How come a flow of some lava-like substance is more real than a tabby cat?

    No wonder lava lampism has taken off in eliminationist models of reality. Consider the following passage, and ask yourself: is this Deleuze, philosopher of flows; or is this Ken Wilber, New Age integrationist? Here it is:

    Our phenomenal world is not an elementaristic world made out of building blocks, it is not a Lego universe, because it possesses an organic structure; it is more aptly characterized as a quasi-liquid network. [26]

    Yet I am unsurprised to find that neuro-eliminationist Thomas Metzinger is the author. Metzinger borrows notions of no-self from Buddhism, falling in line with the very many scholars who consider Buddhism a lava lamp religion.

    Am I simply expressing an animus against liquids, fluidity, process, organicity, change? Isn’t reality a (dare I say complex) mixture of stability and instability? In the real world of time and change, isn’t it more useful to see stability as an achievement (as Latour would argue) rather than as the default position? To frame the debate in this way is precisely to have conceded to a reductive materialism that has no time for objects. On this view, “solidity” and “liquidity” are phases of the same underlying “thing,” the die always weighted in the direction of liquid—so that solidity is only a metastable equilibrium of a flowing process, or whatever. Forget the inhibiting scientistic sheen of the issue. This is merely an aesthetic image: you are free to like it or dislike it, but there’s no arguing with it. That’s why I call it lava lampy materialism: some people just find lava lamps groovy. There’s no accounting for taste. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that: in fact, if the lava lampists were truer to their taste, rather than to scientism, we would have something to talk about. The literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote that all poetry interpretations are either paraphrase or metaphor. This is what the lava lamp discussion boils down to. If you want to paraphrase science then by all means go with lava lamp materialism. If on the other hand you aspire to more than that, then you must risk metaphor. And if the causal dimension is an aesthetic one, then paraphrase just is a version of metaphor. The real trouble with paraphrase is that it’s information poor: the whole point of a good paraphrase is to lose information, to slim down. So paraphrases contain at least one inherent blind spot.

    Beyond this, however, there is the matter of ontology. The lava lamp argument is just a version either of undermining—reducing objects to some object that is held to be more real (some overarching process of which cats and copper are instantiations). So I am simply unable to agree that things are made of processes and, worse, that some things are more true to the process than others. (More fluid, more groovy.) Do Lego bricks (to name the objects Metzinger mentions) require some kind of Stalinist show trial in which they admit their denial of their inherent meltiness? And beg to be melted down in the name of lava progress? “Some things are more processual than others.” This is ontotheology.

    Let’s just start with the notion that objects withdraw. This means that everything is unique. It’s my idea of the strange stranger applied to all entities. Although the idea was developed to cover lifeforms, it is elementary to apply it to non-living entities. This is because the difference between life and non-life is at many levels quite blurry: Sorites paradoxes abound when one tries to produce a thin, rigid boundary between life and non-life.

    All entities are uncanny, even to themselves. Unique doesn’t mean individual. Think of a front lawn. It’s an expression of individualism, but not uniqueness. As a matter of fact there are some very strict rules as to what counts as a proper front lawn, just as there are rules about proper individualism. In Colorado you can be arrested in certain towns for not trimming your lawn just right. Since objects withdraw, there is no top object and no bottom object: no “matter,” no lava, no holistic web, just a plenum of unique objects. Objects as irreducible units aren’t like trillions of garden lawns or iPhones all “personalized” in different ways: that would be overmining. Nor are irreducible objects like various things all made of the same Lego bricks: that would be undermining. OOO is proclaiming this, not that we should favor solids over liquids.

    OOO objects are units, in Bogost's elegant terminology. [27] A football team is a unit. A cloud is a unit. A quantum is a unit. Indeed, quantum theory works so beautifully precisely because it is unit based. Planck decided there were quanta in the first place to get around paradoxes of a relationist view. If everything is, at bottom, interlaced waves of energy (à la nineteenth-century physics), you get absurd results for black body radiation. (Above a certain temperature it looks as if the sum of those waves in your microwave is infinity!) A quantum is a unit par excellence: it’s in the word itself. A system of quanta in coherence is zuhanden, not just “for me” or for some outside “observer,” but within the system itself. “Measurement” (interfering with it) makes it vorhanden. A little particle qua tiny pingpong ball is a vorhanden parody of a zuhanden object. So a single quantum is a withdrawn object par excellence.

    Quantum theory is about how there are independent things. As argued elsewhere in this book, to “measure” at the quantum level means “to hit with a photon or an electron” (and so on). When this happens the system is destroyed: it’s an assemblage of quanta, if you like, that can be disassembled. The quanta are independent of one another. If they were fundamentally relational rather than units, quanta could not be wrested out of “coherence” when they are “measured,” coherence being the term for the way quanta are smeared into one another in a closed system. If they were truly interlocked they could not be separated. But separating them is very easy. All that is required is some kind of interference. It is when quanta relate that their coherence is destroyed. There is something “underneath,” “different from” (or what have you) relations.

    Of course this hasn’t yet stopped quantum physicists and philosophers from promoting quantum theory as the ultimate guarantee that things are relational all the way down. The constant pronouncement that quantum entities prove relationism correct is only a symptom of the age in which we live, not of quanta themselves. The Standard Model promoted by Niels Bohr is a good example of correlationism: quanta are only meaningful when they are measured, and it makes no sense to think any further about them. There is a longstanding taboo on ontological probing beneath the closed hood of quanta, which is why the “ontological interpretation” of David Bohm and Basil Hiley has been vilified. This is not the place to debate the merits of different interpretations of quantum theory. But it is evident that it is quanta themselves, as units, which make phenomena such as entanglement and coherence so astonishing.

    These astonishing facts can easily be explained if we accept that units are ontologically prior to (aesthetic–causal) relations. Even process-relational ontological interpretations of quantum theory (de Broglie’s pilot waves, Bohm’s Implicate Order) rely on there being real entities that may enclose infinitesimal layers of smaller entities all the way down, below the size of an electron (10-17cm). Of course, the big picture is that most adherents of quantum theory are underminers or overminers, so that Bohr’s version is overmining, while Bohm’s version is undermining.

    I digress. Let’s return to the discussion of process-relationism. Imagine that one could accede to some nice compromise between processes and non-processes: “Things are kind of melty but also kind of solid.” Such a belief is still reductionism, eliminationism and so on. Lava lamps are precisely somewhere “between” melty and solid. I’m rooting for at least a fresh look at stasis for variety’s sake, but because I do this, it doesn’t mean that I think things “really are” static or that we prefer solids or whatever. That would be a childish misinterpretation, along the lines of “You prefer blue but I know purple is better.” Or more precisely, “I prefer electrons to be orbiting quite a lot faster than you do, and that’s a good thing.” (The premise being that we are all talking about different kinds of the same thing, which isn’t the case.) Quite the contrary: it’s the lava lamp argument that suffers from superficial aestheticism. An aestheticism that it denies at a more fundamental level, since what really runs the show are machine-like processes, not colors and grooviness. The lava lamp theory is precisely attuned to human perception, rather than reality as such: if I were a four-dimensional being, I would see a flowing blob of lava as a static block.

    If you want an ontology where aesthetics really does run the show, you need OOO. And that brings me to my final point. It’s the lava lamp school that suffers from a static notion of time as a container—the lamp in which the lava gloops. OOO sees time as a feature of the sensuality of objects themselves. Ironically then, if you want stasis, stick with the lava lamps. If you’ve ever heard minimalist music, you’ll recognize how all those flowing processes produce the precise effect of stasis, of running in place. The first Westerners to hear the gamelan noted this with wonder. [28] Or just plain old house music: it’s a fluid dynamic of layered processes taking place in a four-to-the-floor container of mechanism, which makes you dance: that is, move in place. Colorful, beautiful, static machinery.

    Fluid dynamics is perfectly mechanical. Fluids look lava-lampy to human eyes (a suspiciously correlationist fact). But the fluids push each other around much like cogs in a machine. [29] The concept of “organicity” began to exert its charm in Romantic poetry, the original lava lampy, process-not-product stuff. Organon (Greek) means tool, “component in a machine.” A machine is precisely organic. Organicism is a form of mechanism, with soft components. The parts of an organic whole are replaceable: holism cares not a jot for unique objects. It’s a form of mechanism.

    With their quaintly aestheticized scientistic contraband (mechanism, protests notwithstanding), it’s the lava-lampers who fail to explain causality, not OOO. Like lava lamps, process ontologies are a form of regressive kitsch, looking futuristic yet reassuringly passé, like a 1960s sci-fi concept of the twenty-first century. They leave humanism just where the linguistic turn left it: as the candy sprinkles on top of the cake of science. If, however, we take lava lamp processes to be a sensual phenomenon in the aesthetic dimension, that is the causal one, we can use them to think precisely about how objects persist. Lava lamp flows are not behind or underneath objects, but out in front of them. The deep problem with lava-lamp materialism is the problem with positivist theories of causality, the ones we explored in the Introduction. This is the anxiety to reduce or smooth out discrepancies between an object and its properties, so as to avoid logical and set-theoretical problems. The lava-lamp universe is pleasingly consistent. The price it pays is editing out whole chunks of reality and policing distinctions between real and pseudo, becoming brittle as it does so.

    Lava lamps may ooze, but lava-lamp theory is brittle. It can’t account for how things arise, without breaking the universe into an infinite of totally discrete entities—this is the trouble with Alfred North Whitehead, whose refreshing alternative to mainstream analytic and continental traditions has recently become evident to scholarship. For Whitehead, every interaction an entity has fundamentally changes that entity, creating a totally new one. [30] This is a form of cinematic change, in which change only appears to happen, based on a certain flow of static images—such a theory is also expounded by the Buddhist philosopher Dharmakirti. Coherence is bought at the price of fragmenting objects into tiny movie frames. When the movie is run (but for whom?) entities appear smooth and lava-lampy. But there is a mechanism, and an implicit production process, underneath. To parody The Wizard of Oz, lava lamp theories want us to pay no attention to the movie projector in front of the object on the screen, treating the object as a real object when everything in the theory says that it’s made of relations or as Whitehead puts it, prehensions. [31] Again, the disturbing aspect of the aesthetic dimension—the fact that it lies, the fact that it pretends—is edited out, so that lava-lamp theories appear rather like those Hollywood sci fi movies that use the best special effects, then erase the trace that you are watching an illusion.

    Behind the problem of process is a bigger problem of constancy. In this respect, lava-lamp theories take over from Cartesian theories of objects, which themselves rely heavily on notions imported wholesale from Medieval scholasticism. As we saw earlier in this book, this wholesale importation of substances encrusted with accidents is an intriguing moment in the history of philosophy and science, a moment with world-historical consequences. Descartes relied upon a medieval ontology of substance and accidents. Yet he took philosophy into the modern era by deciding somewhat unconsciously not to question this idea. Instead Descartes depends upon math and physics to “see” the kind of entity he thinks being is: “constant objective presence.” [32]

    To solve the problem that Descartes manufactured, some philosophy, in particular recent forms of process philosophy, have taken refuge in a kind of kluge of subject and object: as if gluing together the two fragments would result in something satisfactory. Process joins environment as what I’ve elsewhere called a “new and improved” version of Nature (which I capitalize to return to it the sense of artificiality it struggles to slough off). These terms float somewhere “in between” subject and object, as if one were trying to have it both ways, rather than fundamentally rethinking what an object is. The notion of a “between” in between subject and objects implies you have already passed over deep ontological questions concerning what “subject” and “object” are. For OOO, moreover, the notion of something in between objects and objects implies objectively present ontic contraband. [33] You already assume that there are certain kinds of self-consistent object, then you have to imagine a medium for them to float in, something Locke calls an “ambient fluid.” [34] What surrounds the particles of ambient fluid themselves? If Nature is sandwiched between things, what medium keeps that sandwiched together? The ambient mayonnaise is at risk of leaking out of the ontological sandwich altogether.

    To argue for a “between” such as an “ambience” or Nature that somehow accommodates subjects and objects, is already to have decided some things about said subjects and objects in advance, namely that they are reified “objective presence.” [35] If you cleave to the withdrawal of things, you just can’t do that. In fact, the OOO solution is that what is called the “between” such as “environment” is really another object. Thinking should be suspicious of approaches that claim to solve the subject–object dualism by positing a special adhesive that exists “between” them, or a special restaurant (nice ambience, nice music) in which they might finally hit it off and have “proper” sex.

    Ideas about continuing to exist are frequently based on an unexamined assumption that the Law of Noncontradiction (LNC) holds for all things. Continuing to exist, according to this view, means continuing not to contradict yourself. On the view I am expounding here, the case is quite the opposite: things continue to exist precisely by being in a state of constant contradiction. When something fails to contradict itself, it ceases to exist: this is what ceasing to exist actually is. If objects must fail to contradict themselves to exist at all, we run into a very significant problem: how do things move? We shall explore this next.


    1. See for instance Mark Heller, The Ontology of Physical Objects: Four-Dimensional Hunks of Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 47–51. return to text
    2. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 139–140, 178, 214, 235.return to text
    3. Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), tr. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 332. return to text
    4. Thanks to Joseph Goodson for talking this through with me. return to text
    5. Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology,” Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring–Summer, 2011), 163–190.return to text
    6. Ian Bogost, “Process vs. Procedure,” paper given at the Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project, Claremont College, December 2–4, 2010. Bogost uses the term “firehose materialism,” analogous to my lava lamps. return to text
    7. Thomas Metzinger, Being No-One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 145. See Graham Harman, “The Problem with Metzinger,” Cosmos and History 7.1 (2011), 7–36.return to text
    8. Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 3–19; Alien Phenomenology, 22–29. return to text
    9. David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (London and New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), 13–20.return to text
    10. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 11–14, 87, 137, 143–146, 153–155.return to text
    11. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), 75–78, 210, 214–215. return to text
    12. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 18–20. return to text
    13. Heidegger, Being and Time 88–89 (89). return to text
    14. Heidegger, Being and Time, 124. return to text
    15. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, tr. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1975, 1979), II.23.23–24 (308–309).return to text
    16. See Heidegger, Being and Time, 124: “In which direction must we look for the phenomenal characteristics of being-in as such? We get the answer to this question what we were charged with keeping in view phenomenologically when we pointed out this phenomenon: being-in in contradistinction to the objectively present insideness of something objectively present ‘in’ an other; being-in not as an attribute of an objectively present subject effected or even initiated by the objective presence of the ‘world’; rather, being-in essentially as the kind of being of this being itself. But then what else presents itself with this phenomenon other than the objectively present commercium between an objectively present subject and an objectively present object? This interpretation would come closer to the phenomenal content if it stated that Da-sein is the being of this ‘between.’ Nonetheless, the orientation toward the ‘between’ would still be misleading. It colludes unawares with the ontologically indefinite approach that there are beings between which this being as such ‘is.’ The between is already understood as the result of the convenientia of two objectively present things. But this kind of approach always already splits the phenomenon beforehand, and there is no prospect of ever again putting it back together from the fragments. Not only do we lack the ‘cement’, even the ‘schema’, according to which this joining together is to be accomplished has been split apart, or never as yet unveiled. What is ontologically decisive is to avoid splitting the phenomenon beforehand, that is, to secure its positive phenomenal content.” This was an argument I made in Ecology without Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 47–54. return to text