Timothy Morton

Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality

    3. Magic Life

    You have to play a long time to sound like yourself
    Miles Davis

    This is my favorite part of Anti-Oedipus, the joyous, outrageous masterpiece by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:

    A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world. Lenz’s stroll, for example, as reconstructed by Büchner. This walk outdoors is different from the moments when Lenz finds himself closeted with his pastor, who forces him to situate himself socially, in relationship to the God of established religion, in relationship to his father, to his mother. While taking a stroll outdoors, on the other hand, he is in the mountains, amid falling snowflakes, with other gods or without any gods at all, without a family, without a father or a mother, with nature. “What does my father want? Can he offer me more than this? Impossible. Leave me in peace.” Everything is a machine. Celestial machines, the stars or rainbows in the sky, alpine machines— all of them connected to those of his body. The continual whirr of machines. “He thought that it must be a feeling of endless bliss to be in contact with the profound life of every form, to have a soul for rocks, metals, water, and plants, to take into himself, as in a dream, every element of nature, like flowers that breathe with the waxing and waning of the moon.” To be a chlorophyll- or a photosynthesis-machine, or at least slip his body into such machines as one part among the others. Lenz has projected himself back to a time before the man-nature dichotomy, before all the co-ordinates based on this fundamental dichotomy have been laid down. He does not live nature as nature, but as a process of production. There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all of species life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever. [1]

    Machines, rhythms, speeds all moving with and against one another, like sitting in a train carriage watching different trains pulling into and out of a station, feeling tugged now this way, now that way, by the relative motion. The Rift between essence and appearance suspends itself against other Rifts: an object persists.

    Forget the valuation of the schizophrenic against the neurotic, and focus on the descriptive language. This is the pure poetry of process relationism. It’s perfect for evoking the persistence of objects, the way they stay themselves, for a time at any rate, before they break, before they die. OOO shouldn’t abandon processes. It should think them as part of a larger configuration space. Processes are wonderful metaphors for existence: existing, continuing, flourishing, living. The very failures of process relationism, as we shall see—its failure to account for time as an inherent feature of objects—turns out to be a virtue, insofar as the magical illusion of the present is a feeling of being “in” time, just as one is immersed in the water of a swimming pool or the pulsing rhythms of a nightclub.

    We shall use the technique developed in the previous chapter: let us look at art and see what it can tell us about how things remain what they are. To do so we shall have to think about the second of Aristotle’s tripartite division of beginning, middle and end. What is the feeling of being in the middle? It is, I shall argue, precisely the feeling of being caught or suspended in a multiplicity of rhythms. Like being in a factory, a gigantic factory, hearing what Deleuze and Guattari memorably call “the continual whirr of machines.” These rhythms are fundamentally composed of the irreducible difference between an object and its sensual qualities, as those qualities interact with the sensual qualities of other objects. Thus the most basic rhythm is the difference of an object from itself: a dialetheic phenomenon that we shall explore as we continue. This difference-from-itself is what constitutes persisting. When objects coexist without creation or destruction, this difference-from-themselves multiplies, like the expanding waves of a techno tune.

    The Disco of the Present Moment

    You can tell that you are in the middle of a classic realist story when the story seems to begin to circle. Again, note the difference between literary realism and ontological realism. My contention is simply that literary realism appears realistic because there is a reality—that realism in art is not simply a solipsistic human concoction. Realism simply exploits how humans anthropomorphize the real: there must be a real for this anthropomorphism to take place. So we can work backwards from the experiences granted to us in art to talk about reality as such. That this move seems counterintuitive is, as I have argued, a symptom of the problems that have beset modernity.

    Narrative cycling, otherwise known as periodic structure, can be as simple or as complex as a storyteller wants it to be. But in general, the feeling of looping and cycling is achieved by introducing periodic forms: things repeat. Moreover, there is a feeling of being suspended: of moving while standing still, of stasis in movement. Somehow the storyteller achieves a feeling of relative motion, like being on a train waiting in a station, seeing another train beside you moving out, getting that feeling of movement even though your train is supposedly motionless.

    How does our narrator achieve this? She introduces inverse ratios between the frequency and duration of events in the narrated sequence of events and the chronological sequence of events. What does this mean? Let’s call the narrated sequence the plot, and the chronological sequence the story. For our purposes, let’s make things easy and say that an “event” is anything in a narrative that has a verb attached to it. So “Humpty Dumpty decided to foment a revolution” is one event, the event “Humpty Dumpty decided.” We can assign numbers to these events. Now one easy way to turn a story into a plot is to rearrange the sequence. Say my story goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (it has to, because stories are chronological). But I rearrange it to obtain 2, 1, 5, 3, 4. You will see that I’ve introduced some flashbacks and forward jumps, little eddies in the recounting of the events.

    So as a storyteller I can play with event sequencing. But I can also play with two basic features of narrating events: frequency and duration. [2] Frequency refers to how many times an event occurs. Duration refers to how long it takes. Now evidently an event that occurs just once in the story can be narrated many times, and vice versa. “Throughout the month of August, Humpty Dumpty kept on returning to that fateful square in Prague.” An event that occurs many times can be narrated just once. In this case, we don’t know how many times it occurs in the story, so let’s call it n. The frequency is always expressible as a ratio, in this case 1/n. Or we can have an event that only occurs once in the story being narrated many times. “Humpty Dumpty polished his gun … He picked up his gun and polished it … He cleaned his gun …” (he is something of an obsessive). Here the ratio is n/1.

    The same goes for duration. An event that takes a very short time in the story can be stretched over many pages in the plot, and vice versa. We have already explored how aperture, the feeling of beginning, is a feeling of uncertainty. We can apply this to the rhythm of how events unfold in a story. The beginning of a story is marked by the coexistence of a chaotic flux of frequencies and durations. Aperture is the feeling that we don’t know which end is up yet. In that case, what is typical of the middle of a story—that is, the feeling of being in the middle‚ in a realist story at any rate? It is a settling into a regular rhythm, a periodicity. Now the very core of the middle, which we shall call development, is like the development section in a sonata, in which all the themes and key signatures of the first movement are played out to their logical conclusions. This core of the development section immerses us in periodicity. How does a narrative achieve this?

    It is through the exploitation of ratios between frequency and duration. In the middle of the middle of a realist novel, the frequency and duration ratios are in some kind of inverse form. That is, they take the form 1/n and n/1. What does this do to us readers? Time seems to dilate and compress. Days go past in a single sentence. Minutes go past like years. Thousands of repetitions become available in a single phrase. A single event is seen a thousand times. The reader loses track of time, not because there is no time, but because a host of crisscrossing rhythms is playing out. Time is suspended.

    In cartoons, the effect of “being in the middle” is often achieved through a mechanical repetition that resembles what has just been described. Characters seem to be suspended in their actions, and these repetitions exude a comedic mechanical quality. [3] A joyous, disturbing repetition occurs. Beginnings are blissful or horrific, anamorphic distortions of existing appearances. But continuation is comical, as Bergson noted: acting like a machine is intrinsically funny. A dominant human aesthetic exploitation of “being in the middle” is found in many varieties of comedy. With their constant rapid rotation of characters and openings and closings of doors, farces arouse humor by prolonging suspension. In a romantic comedy movie, a pop song signifies being in the middle, accompanying the action with its regular verse-chorus-verse periodicity. The song says, “These events are carrying on for an unspecified time, many times more than this movie is now narrating them.” In music, suspension is a technical term for an effect that resembles the narrative effect I’ve just described. A single note or chord, the pedal point, is held underneath or above a shifting melody. The melody constantly recontextualizes the pedal point. An affect of moving while standing still manifests. Disco music is famous for using such suspensions all over the place, since its aim is to keep us on the dancefloor for as long as possible. Dancing, which is a form of “walking while standing still,” is itself an embodiment of suspension.

    There is something strange about the disco of the present moment. The music seems to be emanating from the dancers themselves. To this extent, time is a verb: a clock times, in the way I might dance about architecture. On this view, clock time is a sensual effect, a play of periodicities that requires the existence of 1+n objects: an interobjective system. Clock time is an emergent effect of the time emitted by objects themselves. To time is intransitive, having to do with the Rift within the object itself. Moreover, dancers far away enough in the disco might not be dancing to anything like the tune in our neighborhood at all. The emergence of time from objects is just a physical fact. This fact puts severe constraints on the idea of a universal clock. Since the speed of light is strictly limited, even for a single photon, every event in the universe has a “light cone” within which events can be said to happen in the past or in the future, over here or over there. Events outside the light cone cannot be said to happen in the future or in the past or in the present, over here or over there.

    This means that for every entity there is a future future—a radically unknowable one; and an elsewhere elsewhere—also radically unknowable. The notion of time as a universal container is a reification of a human sensual object, as if the whole universe were dancing to the same ABBA record. Even in our own vicinity, some objects have a much vaster present moment than we do. The German cartoon Das Rad presents the formation of a human road from the point of view of two sentient boulders by its side. Over the course of ten of thousands of human years, the rocks observe a few moments together, seeing wheels, cities and post-apocalyptic landscapes come and go. [4]

    The disco of the present moment is a gigantic set of transductions. A record needle (magnetic cartridge) converts mechanical vibrations from vinyl into an electrical signal. A loudspeaker converts this electrical signal into sound waves. The piezoelectric effect transduces mechanical pressure into high voltage electrical energy, a jet of electrons. This jet of information is amplified further by butane, resulting in a flame. Electrons flow through a wire. A fluorescent bulb converts their energy into light. An electromagnetic wave propagates through space. An antenna focuses the wave and converts it into electrical signals. A transducer converts one kind of energy into another kind of energy.

    A transducer is an object that mediates between one object and another, such that a transducer is an essential logistical component of vicarious causation. Input into the transducer is treated as information, which gives the energy in the transducer a specific form. The transduction energy then acts as a carrier wave for this information. On this view, “clunk causality” (mechanical causation) is a small region of the configuration space of transductions. Mechanical energy in one system is converted into mechanical energy in another, thus giving rise to the illusion for mechanical-scale objects (such as humans) that causality is only mechanical and that information is only ideal, not physical. Also, on this view, perception is just a small region of transduction space. Hearing, for example, depends on pressure cells in the cochlea. (Incidentally, these are the only plant cells in the mammal body.) Thus in any causal event we have two series, depending on whether we are thinking from the point of view of the transducer or that of the transduced. From the point of view of the transduced, the transducer is irrelevant (nonsensual, enclosed). This is in line with the reality of real objects. Reality doesn’t “look like” anything.

    Thus we have an asymmetry, an OOO asymmetry. It matters not one whit to the transduced whether it is picked up or amplified or whatever by an aerial or a microphone or a piezoelectric crystal. The electromagnetic waves go on propagating around the aerial, despite it. The aerial might as well not be there. Sign theories such as structuralism only deal with the point of view of transducers. To a transducer, everything looks like information. Rather than ignoring it or regressing from it (by substituting some form of new material for instance, such as a flow), OOO encapsulates linguistic turn theory in a wider configuration space that includes the physical. The era of the linguistic turn thought of information models such as signifiers and signified (structuralism). These were subject to various different kinds of analysis, such as deconstruction, which argues that there is no genuine signified, just an infinitely deferred chain of signifiers. When it makes this observation, what deconstruction implies, though this is not stated as such within deconstruction, is the presence of a withdrawn object (1+n objects, precisely), outside the signifying system. The letters on this page don’t care about the pixels they’re made of, but without them the letters wouldn’t exist. Thus to signifiers and signifieds, OOO introduces their mysterious twin brothers, the transduced and the transducers.

    Suspension Machines

    The present is not as real as some philosophers take it to be. [5] (In fact, when we get to Chapter 4, we will see a good case for its being less real than the past or the future.) Presence is the way an object times, in the intransitive sense I discussed. An object suspends itself, maintaining the Rift between essence and appearance. Thus presence is not like a box, or a street, or even a collection of streets that run in parallel. Presence is a wild chorus of times, a cacophony of suspension machines, populated with little islands of harmony. When we look for them, we find suspension machines all over the place, ticking out their syncopated rhythms. They are indeed best described as machines, since they involve overlapping periodic cycles. Such mechanisms include the Clock of the Long Now, a mechanical (rather than digital) clock being assembled in the Nevada desert. Once built, the clock will run for ten thousand years. [6] The clock forces us to see how the notion of the “present” is at bottom a reaction to a set of relations: a property of a sensual object. It could last for a microsecond, or for ten thousand years. Humans regard as simultaneous any two events that succeed one another by a tenth of a second or less (“the specious present”). [7]

    The impact of a thing can be measured according to how much periodicity it establishes. In music therapy, the therapist places the patient’s mind in a hypnotic state through the use of repetition. In such a state, a person can be influenced. To place you in a state of suspension is for me to have power over you. To place in suspension is how what Ian Bogost calls “wonder” is engineered. [8] When I read a poem, I wonder about it. It begins to exert a power over me. When an acid drops onto a metallic surface, the metal wonders about it. Wonder is a state of suspension in which one being exerts a pull on another, an “allure” as Harman puts it. [9]

    Suspension machines characterize the operation of what we call subjects. Consider melancholy, or depression, or grief. Melancholy is an object-like entity that inhabits our psyche without seeming to change. Grief seems to come and go in cycles. Melancholy is the footprint of another entity of whatever kind whose proximity was experienced as a trauma. The Freudian logic of the death drive is that periodic processes within the organism strive to digest external stimuli and maintain equilibrium. As stated earlier, Freud argues that the ego itself is nothing but the record of “abandoned object cathexes.” [10] The ego is a sensual object. Melancholy by definition implies coexistence, which is why it’s important for ecological thinking, since ecology is about coexistence thought as widely and as deeply as possible. This coexistence need not be with sentient beings, nor even with lifeforms per se: it can include all entities such as rocks, plutonium and carbon dioxide.

    But just as importantly, melancholy doesn’t imply anything about subjectivity. All you need for melancholy are various kinds of object. This is what makes it different, in traditional psychoanalytic theories, from other affects. Indeed, melancholy speaks a truth of all objects—recall that I here use the term “object” in a value-neutral way, implying any real entity whatsoever, not objectification or subject–object dualism. Melancholy doesn’t require fully formed subjectivity. Indeed, subjectivity is a result of an abnegation of the melancholic thing, which Julia Kristeva calls the abject, in order to distinguish it from habitual concepts of subject and object. [11] The melancholy coexistence of objects predates the existence of the ego. Egos presuppose ancient layers of beings, fossilized remains.

    The compulsion to repeat seems to outstrip the concrete needs of an organism. [12] Freud breaks the periodic cycling of the death drive down to a pre-sentient lifeform, a single-celled organism. It might be supposed that repetition goes a way farther “down” than this. DNA appears to be in a state of disequilibrium, like a paradoxical sentence such as “I am lying” or “This sentence is false.” Why do replicators replicate? Isn’t it because of some fundamental disequilibrium that the molecule is somehow “trying” to shake off? Isn’t DNA also trying to “return to the quiescence of the inorganic world”? Isn’t the death drive, then, far, far lower down than single-celled organisms, relative newcomers on the four and a half billion-year-old scene? Wouldn’t it be unsurprising then that if the death drive were installed at this fundamental level, all levels above it would manifest it in different ways, until we reach self-reflexive levels of consciousness and the meaning-saturated worlds humans and other life forms spin for themselves—civilization, in a word?

    In the process of trying to solve its inner disequilibrium, DNA and other replicators do the only thing they do—replicate. The trouble is, the more you pursue it, the more life you live. The death drive is precisely this momentum to cancel oneself out, to erase the stain of existence: death is the essence of life:

    The attributes of life were at some time evoked in inanimate matter by the action of a force of whose nature we can form no conception. It may perhaps have been a process similar in type to that which later caused the development of consciousness in a particular stratum of living matter. The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been an inanimate substance endeavoured to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state. [13]

    DNA is involved in a noir plot in which the detective finds out that he is the killer. In attempting to solve the riddle of its existence, DNA redoubles existence. But why? Why do such things as DNA exist? How can a molecular string behave like a computer virus, reproducing itself in the attempt to (dis)solve itself? What if the reason for the existence of suspension machines such as DNA, the death drive, grief and melancholy were an inconsistency that lay deeper still towards the heart of an object? An inconsistency that applied not only to living systems, but to all entities whatsoever?

    Consider again the achievement of continuity in narrative. When we think carefully about the model that compares the chronological sequence to the narrated sequence of events, we discover a telling fact. A chronological series is also strictly an arrangement. Who or what precisely is “telling the time” in such a series? What needs to be explained, time as a flow of events, seems to recede behind a certain storyline, even if that storyline is in strict chronological order. This devolves into further problems. Of course, who can say how long the Vietnam War really took? Counting in years seems reasonable but microsecond timing seems out of the question. Who could say how long it takes on average to brush your teeth or kill someone? The talk of duration and frequency, then, is vague. The “real events” seem to recede before us as we try to grasp them. Not to worry: might this recession of the real tell us something true about the nature of things? In other words, since in the words of one narratologist a chronological “reference zero” of total isochrony, total simultaneity between plot and story, is only an illusion, isn’t it the case that what we are studying is the effect of the chōrismos between real and sensual objects? [14] Presence is an aesthetic effect.

    Now we should make clear, as we close in on the notion of suspension, that the way an object is suspended is ontological. In other words, an object is not an objectively present block of something that then gets placed into relationships that are suspenseful. It’s the other way around. Suspenseful relationships are possible only on the basis that objects are irreducibly, intrinsically suspended. In other words, suspension is always already at work in the object, just one single object. An object is uniquely itself, observers or interactions notwithstanding. This means that what I here call appearance is not separable from the object; yet the object is not reducible to its appearance. At this point we face a choice. We could argue that a sensual object is a different object from a real object. Or we could suppose, as I do here, that the unicity of a thing requires that it defy the Law of Noncontradiction. Since there is a Rift (chōrismos) between the essence and appearance of an object, an object is suspended between “being itself” and “not-being itself” (p ∧ ¬p, a dialetheia). Without accepting this, we risk being stuck with a reality in which objects require other entities to function, which would result in some kind of undermining or overmining. All the needed fuel exists “inside” one object to have time, space, and causality.

    This seems to be in line with what Heidegger says about persistence towards the end of Being and Time. Persistence, argues Heidegger, can’t simply be continuing to exist “in” time, since that begs the question. [15] If we then apply Harman’s generalization of Heidegger to encompass all objects, including nonhuman and nonsentient ones, we can assert that for an object to persist is for that object to be grasped by some other object, to become vorhanden (present-at-hand). But why is this the case? Again, it’s the case because of the Rift between essence and appearance. In locking on to the appearance of an object—which includes anything at all we can say about it: its momentum, its density, its texture, as well as its color, shape, and so on ad infinitum—another object fails to grasp the essence of the object. The object is suspended between being-grasped and not-being-grasped. This is because the nature of objects is always already to be suspended, to be the suspension between essence and appearance. We shall revisit this paradoxical, complex issue in a while.

    For now, let’s note that we have already made quite a significant discovery. We are in a position to suppose that persistence is persistence-for: persistence, that is, is a sensual object. The “presence” of an object is never that object qua real object. Persistence is a significant problem otherwise: because objects are apparently themselves, how can their persistence be said to be a kind of causation? Yet how can it not, since there are clear examples of physical energy such as inertia that require a theory of causation in some sense? [16] Inertia is essentially the fact that objects remain what they are if nothing interferes with them. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object will keep on moving unless something impedes it. This law grounds the Copernican turn in science. Yet understanding exactly what is happening, in a philosophical sense, is quite tricky.

    To cope with persistence, Russell speaks of quasi-permanence, and Spinoza speaks of immanent causation. But these theories seem like supplements that are awkwardly tacked on to a substance-plus-accidents view of things. Furthermore such theories are not very congruent with contemporary physical science. If an object remains the same, nothing can happen to it—yet we see objects seemingly squirming about all over the place, remaining what they are. This is the deeper sense of “motion” that Aristotle grasps at when he talks about phusis, or “emergence” in Heidegger’s fine translation. [17] Phusis manifests as metabolē or change. Even simply remaining-the-same is a subset of motion. [18] Thus Leibniz argues that things have an internal tendency to change, that a thing “is active by its own nature.” This activity, or drive, can manifest as a soul-like or mind-like presence in a thing—in this respect, there is no intrinsic difference between a stone and a person. [19]

    Unless we admit that there is a Rift between appearance and essence, it is very difficult to explain inertia. If things are just themselves, it seems as if they need other things in order to change. Nothing speaks to the illusory quality of objects like the fact of persistence. To alter Miles Davis, persistence is simply sounding like yourself after you’ve played for a long time. Consider an object such as a cascade of water: the water keeps changing though the waterfall is clearly identifiable as a waterfall. Consider me: many of my cells change over periods of several years yet I remain Tim in some sense. Or consider a species surviving over a stretch of millions of years: countless individuals come and go while the species remains vaguely the same as itself. To be identical is to be the same as (Latin, idem), and thus to be identical is to be slightly different. As strange as it sounds, there is some kind of difference within identity.

    In a later section we will make some modifications to the disco of the present moment, since we are only borrowing from familiar, everyday things rather than looking deeply at ontology. For now, though, it’s a pretty good image to be getting along with.

    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.

    Displacer Beasts: The Mystery of Motion

    Now let’s begin to modify the disco of the present moment by considering some ontological issues a little more deeply. By striving for coherence, lava lamp theories eliminate the intrinsic inconsistency of objects. Yet it is this very inconsistency that allows for things such as persisting and moving. Physical theories of matter take these phenomena to be related. Persisting, for physics, manifests in phenomena such as inertia, in which an object keeps going in the same direction at the same speed if it’s moving through a vacuum at zero gravity. At the quantum level, persisting is simply the way in which quantum events inside an object cancel out. We have arrived at a strange insight. The persistence of a crystal lattice depends upon millions of quantum phenomena that subtend the relatively stable atoms and molecules in the lattice. [36] What are these quantum events? Nothing but the coherence of the quanta, that is, the way they occupy more than one place at once, “breathe” (in Aaron O’Connell’s vivid term). At this scale, physics observes objects that occupy place x and place y at the same time. These objects are dialetheic. The disco of the present moment, in other words, only appears to spin its wheels smoothly. What is actually happening is that it is constantly contradicting itself in a periodic way.

    When we consider motion, it first appears to be a very simple affair. Bertrand Russell argued that motion was simply the way an object occupies different places at different times. Yet when we examine motion more carefully, whole cans of worms seem to explode open. Zeno’s paradoxes ruthlessly trip up theories of motion that think movement as occupying successive places at successive times. [37] These theories of motion must deal with the fact that, on their terms, a flying arrow is still at every single point on its journey. Then they are forced to argue that the whole sequence of now-points at which the arrow is still here and now here, is greater than the sum of its parts. The arrow is only changing its location of rest, not moving. [38] This doesn’t feel very satisfactory. Or we could decide, like Parmenides, that motion doesn’t exist. This doesn’t feel right either.

    What if the dialetheic status of objects underwrote motion? Hegel puts it this way: an object can move because it is both here and not-here at the same time. Graham Priest analyzes this idea of Hegel’s. Suppose that an object really is displaced from itself by some length. Incidentally Priest wonders whether the length might be empirically measurable, and related to the Planck length; but this is not relevant to the discussion here. Although this is not strictly necessary for my argument, it’s significant that Priest is ready to assert that the ambiguity of objects is installed at the most basic level of physical reality that we know. It would help to explain entanglement without recourse to a sub-quantum physical level or to strange faster-than-light communication between quanta. [39] Priest supposes that movement consists simply of the fact that “contradictions arise at the nodal points of certain transitions.” Thus “motion is a continuous state of contradiction.” When I am leaving a room I am both in and out of the room. When a cup shatters, it is “a cup and not a cup” at that instant. [40]

    In this way, Priest is able to get around what he calls the “cinematic” theory of motion, which Priest associates with Russell, and which is what I take to be a problematic aspect of process relationism. [41] In detail, Priest argues that instead of being thought as occupying one point at one time, an object “cannot be localised to a point it is occupying at an instant of time, but only to those points it occupies in a small neighbourhood of that time.” [42] If objects only occupy one location “in” space at any “one” time, then Zeno’s paradoxes will apply to trying to think how an object moves. Yet motion seems like a basic, simple fact of our world. Either everything is just an illusion and nothing really moves at all (Parmenides). Or objects are here and not-here “at the same time.” [43] This latter possibility provides the basic setup for all the motion we could wish for. Objects are not “in” time and space. Rather, they “time” (a verb) and “space” (a verb). They produce time and space. It would be better to think these verbs as intransitive rather than transitive, in the manner of dance or revolt. They emanate from objects, yet they are not the object. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (Yeats). [44] The point being, that for there to be a question, there must be a distinction—or there must not be (p ∧ ¬p). [45] It becomes impossible to tell, and perhaps it’s time to wheel out Lacan again: “What constitutes pretense is that, in the end, you don’t know whether it’s pretense or not.” [46]

    An argument that objects “spread” rather than occupy a single time point is even easier in OOO, in which time emerges from objects themselves. Objects then are always a little bit out of phase with themselves and with one another. Isn’t this why what Miles Davis says about music is so haunting? “You have to play a long time to sound like yourself.” On this view, any creative activity is a tuning process. Since we have decided that causation just is “creative activity,” we can apply Miles Davis’s slogan to all objects. We need not confine the fun of being out of phase with yourself to human beings, as Heidegger does when he argues that Da-sein is always running ahead of itself. [47] Indeed, for an object to come into phase with another object in every respect is what we call destruction. The development phase of a narrative, for instance, is destroyed when the frequency of the narrated events comes into phase with the frequency of the events in the chronological sequence. An action movie is just that: a constant barrage of destruction at the formal level—never mind the exploding buildings and toppling bodies. The persistence of things is a strange unfolding of out-of-phase sequences of relations. When the sequences become synchronized, this is called an occurrence, which is always the death or destruction of something or other. A coyote is chasing a roadrunner around and around a mountain. One day, the coyote catches up with the roadrunner. With a quick gulp and a mess of flesh, the roadrunner is devoured. The roadrunner becomes the coyote. It comes into phase with the coyote’s being. To coexist in harmony, the roadrunner and the coyote must be at least ever so slightly out of phase with one another.

    Why? Because objects are already ontologically out of phase with themselves. The present moment of persistence is badly defined as a rigid box, for then it can be infinitely subdivided (Zeno’s paradox). Objects don’t sit in some kind of rigid temporal box. Instead, they are “internally” out of phase with themselves, and this is what produces time and the possibility that they can interact. It’s as if they were just a little to the left or just a little in front of themselves. In the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, there is a monster called a Displacer Beast, a sort of tentacled panther. A Displacer Beast can project an image of itself slightly to one side of its real position, thus cloaking itself. All objects are Displacer Beasts, riven from within between essence and appearance.

    Thus when an object exists, when it persists, we can say that it is like a quantum object. It breathes, moving and not-moving at the same time, emanating a certain tempo with which other objects may or may not synchronize. The present moment, then, is only a fiction imposed on a strange “nowness” that is a phenomenological sensation of time that takes place within and between objects themselves. This nowness can be relatively extended or narrow, depending on how the object in question is breathing. It just isn’t true to say that there is a rigid reference frame for measuring time, whether we think of this frame as encompassing all entities, or whether every entity has its own unique frame. For an entity to “be in” a frame, some interaction with some other object(s) must have occurred. We can’t specify the dimensions of nowness in advance.

    Bardo 1

    The interobjective space is the aesthetic dimension in which the appearances of objects interact in what we call causality. There is no way to determine the boundary of this space in advance. The space can’t be thought as being “in” something in the way that a jack-in-the-box features a jack inside a box. The space has no center or edge that we can determine in advance, because to do so would have been to exert some kind of causal influence, within that very space. When we delimit a region of interobjective space, even if we just think of doing so, without police tape or calipers or GPS, we do so within that very interobjective space itself. The interobjective space exceeds any particular grasp of it, precisely because it is the possibility space of causality as such. It is strictly not possible to visualize the interobjective space, so instead we must use metaphors: “interobjective space” itself is a metaphorical term.

    One metaphor we might use is abyss. Schelling’s philosophy of nature (for Schelling nature just is everything, whatsoever) posits a whirling abyss of dynamism below the products we encounter such as stars, Earth and speculative realist philosophy books. [48] By contrast, object-oriented ontology locates this abyss not behind or before but out in front of objects. When I reach for the toast, I plunge my hand into an abyss of causality. When a stranger smiles at me in the street, her smile opens a whirling vortex in the abyss of things: the abyss floats in front of her smile. The human tendency to reduce objects to “things over there,” the ersatz definition of objective presence, may simply be a defense mechanism against the surging abyss that confronts us at every turn. Just talk to someone who has a major mental illness such as schizophrenia. The slightest causal event is experienced as a disaster. Threads seem to tie the schizophrenic to the objects in his world, abolishing the illusion of distance. [49] What if this semblance were actually the case, so that what is called causality—the dull clunking of billiard balls on a smooth green baize surface—is the hallucination? It’s not called the schizophrenic defense for nothing.

    What I’ve been calling the interobjective abyss in which causality occurs—the aesthetic dimension—is what Buddhism calls the bardo. Bardo means in-between. Traditionally there are six: the bardo of this life, the bardo of dying, the bardo of the moment of death, the bardo of luminosity, the bardo of dharmata, and the bardo of becoming. Each of these interstitial spaces is configured according to the mind of the person in them. These spaces are causal. In other words, what you do in them affects what happens next. And what you have done affects what happens in them, now. But like in a nightmare, the causality is aesthetic. What happens to you is an aesthetic event that you take to be real because of your conditioning.

    In the bardo, you are blown around by “the winds of karma,” the patterns that you have accumulated. Where do those patterns reside? In the interobjective abyss itself. On this view, what is called mind is simply an emergent property of interobjective relations. Mind is thrown into the abyss, it discovers itself there. Mind is not some special demon or transcendental vapor lurking inside the “cabinet” of self. [50] It is simply produced in interactions between objects. This view of mind is highly congruent with enactivist theories of intelligence, for which mind is a retroactive positing of a certain quality of “mind-ness” on a sequence of actions. A baby doesn’t simply have language imposed on her, but engages in a physical back-and-forth with others that is already charged with meaning. [51] I look clever when I walk over the surface of a moraine glacier: but perhaps I’m just trying not to fall. [52] Such a hypothesis accounts for the evolution of the brain as a kluge of devices held together by projects of lizards, mice and apes in an interobjective space. What are called subject and object, “inner” and “outer” existence, are simply retroactive positings of relations between events in the abyss of causality.

    The bardo of this life is like coexisting with seven billion people, all having slightly different nightmares. We affect one another across these nightmares. The view is not solipsism or idealism. These nightmares are happening in a shared space and they happen because we exist. And what happens in them is real. It affects you. Now OOO argues that what nonhumans do is not all that different from what humans do. And “nonhuman” can mean frog, pencil or electron cloud. So the bardo now includes the dreams of trillions of entities.

    As I walk across my dream of the lawn, the lawn is dreaming about me. When I drink this Diet Coke, I’m drinking my fantasy Coke, while the Coke is sliding down its Coke-fantasy of my throat. It’s like that moment in Alice Through the Looking Glass in which Alice wonders whether she is a character in the Red King’s dream. [53] It’s as if every entity in reality—salt crystals, the Sombrero Galaxy and Take That—are hooked up to Inception-like dream machines. It’s scary and complex. There is no one single stable background “world”—not just because there is a plenum of entities dreaming, but also because such backgrounds are only ever artificial constructs that delimit the interstitial space, the bardo.

    The bardo, the in-between in which objects inevitably find themselves, is a space in which the formal properties of objects—strictly, what happened to them in order for them to end up that way—determine their fate. Objects dream. Think of a footprint. It’s sand’s dream of a foot.

    First, let’s revisit some aspects of the OOO view:

    1. There is very little ontological difference between what we call a mind does when it’s thinking and what a pencil case does when it’s holding pencils.
    2. Objects are what Harman calls “vacuum-sealed” from one another. They never touch each other ontologically, only aesthetically.
    3. What goes on inside an object are all kinds of sensual impressions of other objects. Bryant has revised Jakob von Uexküll’s worlds in this regard.

    Now let’s consider what we know about the unconscious. Freud argues that it’s some kind of inscribable surface. He uses the analogy of the mystic writing pad. Derrida has a marvelous, McLuhan-like essay on it (“Freud and the Scene of Writing”): Freud is in effect admitting that the unconscious is what Derrida calls arche-writing, namely, a technological device that subtends meaning. [54] When you use a mystic writing pad, you erase the wax paper, but the impression of the writing stays on the wax tablet beneath. Script is inscribed in an object. Think of your hard drive, which works in a similar way.

    There are some interesting physiological theories of memory to throw in here. Perhaps memories are distributed holographically, that is nonlocally, in interference patterns. [55] Or perhaps memories are inscribed directly into discrete locations in the body. Dylan Trigg explores how these memory traces go beyond the lifespan of the body in question. [56] It’s beginning to be quite well accepted in contemporary medicine that we store traumas in our bodies. So what do we have so far?

    1. Objects only comprehend sensual translations of other objects.
    2. Memories are inscribed on an object-like surface, of the body or of some more general unconscious, either locally or nonlocally.

    Doesn’t there seem to be something like a chiasmic link between (1) and (2)?

    Now dreaming is a neurophysiological process in which memories are mixed with somewhat random neuron firings and a virtual experience of the world is lived through by the dreamer, who is often trying to make sense of the traumas (un-cathected objects) that have occurred to her. She feels her way around her interactions with other entities in a virtual space. You can call the unconscious a mystic writing pad, because mystic writing pads themselves hold memories and impressions in a meaningful sense. As tough to swallow as it might sound, then, I see no immediate obstacle to allowing for the possibility that objects—nonhumans, that is, including nonsentient nonhumans—dream in some meaningful sense.

    Consider these lines of Percy Shelley:

    Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
    The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
    Lull’d by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
    Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay,
    And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
    Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
    All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
    So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!
    (Ode to the West Wind, 29–36) [57]

    The ocean is dreaming, writes Shelley. What is it dreaming of? A submerged city. The water laps around the sunken palaces and towers of Baiae. It tries to comprehend (OOO aspect [A]) these alien, encrypted objects (aspect [B]), in its ocean-centric, oceanomorphic way (aspect [C]). These human structures that now rest within its domain are strangers in the ocean’s world—Shelley conveys this strangeness by alluding to Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made.” [58] It’s a marvelous image of how consciousness is never simply a neutral container, a void. It’s colored; it quivers. Consider the typical Shelleyan inversion of “the wave’s intenser day.” More blue than the blue of the sky. More sky-like than sky. An image of phenomenological sincerity. (“Wherever you go, there you are.”) But this is also an image of an object wrapped in another object: the OOO universe is one of “objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects” (Harman). [59] An object that accesses another one by dreaming about it. In this way, an object suspends its Rift between essence and appearance relative to other objects. Persistence, life, periodicity, just is the suspension of a Rift between essence and appearance.

    Perhaps I don’t seem to have given an account of the active work of dreaming and remembering. What disturbed Freud was his discovery that the unconscious actively edits incoming stimuli. Now this agency can perhaps be thought of in two distinct ways. The first is that some supervenient property such as imagination or will or creativity adds something to the mix. The second is that there is a physiological process that does roughly the same thing.

    Two propositions are handy at this point:

    1. The binary opposition activity–passivity is, according to OOO, somewhat overrated. OOO is predisposed to disregard the opposition, to some extent, since it seems to map onto human–non-human, or perhaps sentient–nonsentient. Or, looking to Aristotle, animal–vegetable (and mineral).
    2. There are deeper reasons why OOO would be chary of the active–passive binary. If as Harman puts it, “free will is overrated,” I believe we’re signaling that what is called activity and passivity are both as-structured: they are both of them sensual phenomena that occur between objects. And there are reasons to suppose the binary is just spurious, as I shall try to demonstrate.

    To return to the activity of memory and dreaming: we need to think these activities in such a way that ontologically subtends both the hypothesis of a supervenient entity and that of a physiological process. It is actually fairly simple, now that we have everything in place. If every encounter between every entity is a parody or a translation, we have all the fuel we need for the things that look like action, passion, imagination, memory and so on. So we are always dealing with an object’s dream of another object. The unconscious is precisely that: not what we call “subject.” It’s automatic. It seems as if we have all we need then for a theory of how objects dream.

    An object is already dreaming about itself, even when it is “sleeping” (to use Harman’s term), unaffected by another object. This is because of the profound Rift between essence and appearance. This Rift provides the impetus for movement and continuity. Just persisting, just remaining the same, is a strange phenomenon in this regard. The real problem with non-OOO theories of objects—default lumps sprinkled with accidents or cooler flows—is that, as we’ve seen, they are unable to think movement or time without recourse to some non-examined concept that is brought in as a kind of patch. One way this works is that the interobjective space is taken as the actual reality of objects, when it functions more like the Lacanian concept of the Big Other: just as I am a person called Tim by others (in the Big Other in Lacanian terms), so objects are defined by their relations in interobejctivity. This gives rise to the illusion we call relationism. One reason OOO is hard to accept for some people is also the reason why psychoanalysis or ecological awareness is hard to accept: what is found is a profound lack in the Other, the realization that “the Other does not exist”: there is no Nature, no deep background of meaning—what we took as real is really a projection. What we assumed to be real is just a manifestation of the as-structure.

    Belief in interobjectivity as the sole space of objective meaning gives rise to a further illusion that objects are consistent lumps of whatever, or just bundles of qualities. [60] But as we have seen, there are deep reasons why objects appear, and why they move. These reasons have to do with the fact that objects are never just lumps that relations paint into meaningful existence, or qualities floating around. If persistence is only “continuity of form,” it becomes difficult to explain how things change without getting involved in Sorites paradoxes. Exactly when does the continuity kick in? What counts as an iteration of a quality or a quality-bundle? [61]

    There is no difference between stillness and movement, “stasis” and “process.” This is not a superficial lack of difference. Some contemporary philosophy is concerned about how you could tell the difference between a static disc and a “homogenous rotating” one, supposing for a moment that such a thing could exist. [62] These discs are totally uniform in color and to perceivers they appear to be still. On this view, something in the way science intuits objects must be flawed. But such arguments about scientific intuition are pitched towards appearances only, from the OOO standpoint. They think they are talking about the essence of things, but rotation and non-rotation are appearances.

    There is a Rift between the substance and its appearance: this Rift is what makes the disc plausible or not, not whether it’s rotating or still (and the dilemma about whether you can tell the difference). What does this mean? Very simply, if you can destroy it, it’s real, because destruction intervenes in the Rift between essence and appearance. It is to this subject that we must now turn: how do objects end?


    1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 2.return to text
    2. I am adapting the structuralist narratology of Gerard Genette. See Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, tr. Jane E. Lewin, foreword by Jonathan Culler (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). return to text
    3. See Henri Bergson, Laughter in George Meredith and Henri Bergson, An Essay on Comedy/Laughter (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 62, 158–161. return to text
    4. Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittinger, Das Rad (Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, 2002). return to text
    5. Arda Denkel, Object and Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 96–97. return to text
    6. See longnow.org/clock/. return to text
    7. David Bohm, The Special Theory of Relativity (London: Routledge, 2006), 247–248. return to text
    8. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology: Or What It's like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 113–134.return to text
    9. Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 141–144. return to text
    10. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, tr. Joan Riviere, revised and ed. James Strachey, intro. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1989), 24.return to text
    11. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). return to text
    12. Slavoj Žižek, “How to Read Lacan 5. Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien,” http://www.lacan.com/zizalien.htm. return to text
    13. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, tr. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Liveright, 1950), 32. return to text
    14. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, 88. return to text
    15. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1996), 385, 386. return to text
    16. Phil Dowe, Physical Causation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 50. return to text
    17. Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? tr. W.B. Barton and Vera Deutsch, analysis by Eugene T. Gendlin (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), 83.return to text
    18. Heidegger, What Is a Thing? 82. return to text
    19. Martin Heidegger, “From the Last Marburg Lecture Course,” Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 63–81 (77, 75, 73–74). return to text
    20. 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
    21. 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
    22. Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), tr. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 332. return to text
    23. Thanks to Joseph Goodson for talking this through with me. return to text
    24. Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology,” Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring–Summer, 2011), 163–190.return to text
    25. 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
    26. 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
    27. Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 3–19; Alien Phenomenology, 22–29. return to text
    28. 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
    29. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 11–14, 87, 137, 143–146, 153–155.return to text
    30. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), 75–78, 210, 214–215. return to text
    31. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 18–20. return to text
    32. Heidegger, Being and Time 88–89 (89). return to text
    33. Heidegger, Being and Time, 124. return to text
    34. 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
    35. 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
    36. David Bohm, Quantum Theory (New York: Dover, 1989), 20, 352–353. return to text
    37. Graham Priest, In Contradiction: A Study of the Transconsistent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 172–181. return to text
    38. Priest, In Contradiction, 180. return to text
    39. Priest, In Contradiction, 160.return to text
    40. Priest, In Contradiction, 170–171. return to text
    41. Priest, In Contradiction, 173. return to text
    42. Priest, In Contradiction, 177. return to text
    43. Priest, In Contradiction, 172–181. return to text
    44. William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children,” Collected Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner, 1996). return to text
    45. Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Diacritics 3.3 (Autumn, 1973), 27–33 (30). return to text
    46. Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre III: Les psychoses (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1981), 48. See Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), 206. While we are on the subject of Hegel, let it be noted that for a philosophy of dialetheias to bestow much of its affection on Hegel is a little bit flawed. If you really want to go with dialetheias you have to go with discrete objects. You really don’t want to go with a hide and seek game of the Absolute in which the result is known at the very beginning.return to text
    47. Heidegger, Being and Time, 304–306, 310–311, 312, 321–322. return to text
    48. Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (New York: Continuum, 2008), 37–38, 79, 92, 99, 130–131, 146–147, 162.return to text
    49. Paul Fearne, All in the Mind, ABC, September 9, 2010; see Paul Fearne, Diary of a Schizophrenic (Brentwood: Chipmunka Publishing, 2010). return to text
    50. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 56–58.return to text
    51. Stephen J. Cowley, “The Cradle of Language,” in Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, ed., Perspicuous Presentations: Essays on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 278–298. return to text
    52. See Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 51–53.return to text
    53. Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, in The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, ed. and intro. Martin Gardner (New York: Norton, 1999), 189. return to text
    54. Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 196–231.return to text
    55. Karl Pribram and E.H. Carlton, “Holonomic Brain Theory in Imaging and Object Perception,” Acta Psychologica 63 (1986), 175–210. return to text
    56. Dylan Trigg, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012). return to text
    57. Percy Shelley, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2002). return to text
    58. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1987), 1.2.399–400.return to text
    59. Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, 23, 158. return to text
    60. Arda Denkel, Object and Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 12–13, 37, 152. return to text
    61. Denkel, Object and Property, 132–140. return to text
    62. See for example, Craig Callender, “Humean Supervenience and Homogeneous Rotating Matter,” Mind 110.447 (January 2001), 25–43.return to text