Timothy Morton

Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality

    4. Magic Death

    Dust in the air suspended
    Marks the place where a story ended.
    T.S. Eliot [1]

    In order to exist, objects must be fragile. This sounds obvious but when we think the deep ontological reasons why, it becomes quite mysterious. It turns out that objects are dying around us all the time, even as they give birth to other objects. An object’s sensuality is an elegy to its disappearance.

    What Harman calls allure, the way one being exerts power over another, is a sign of possible death. [2] The aesthetic dimension, in other words, is where death happens. If birth is the sublime, beauty is death, as this chapter shall make clear. To be born is to be thrown into an always-already, to find oneself in a set of relations subtended by some object(s). To be born is for a fresh Rift between appearance and essence to open up. To persist is for a Rift to suspend itself in relation to other riven entities.

    In turn, to end is to coincide with one’s sensual appearance. Disappearing into a black hole, I leave behind a rapidly fading image of myself on the event horizon. [3] When a glass shatters, it has been matched by the sensuality of another object. Ending brings to light the withdrawnness of a thing. We can’t point to the absent glass—we only see fragments, splinters. When I die, you can’t point to my death: rather I become memories in someone’s head, a collection of jpegs, the way some people think about things, objects that they handle, wounds. [4] When a realist novel ends, the frequency and duration of the action on the page synchronizes ever more tightly with the action in the chronological sequence of events: ashes to ashes. Again, notice that “realist novel” and “philosophical realism” are different. Nevertheless, since realist fiction is intended to induce a feeling of reality as an aesthetic effect, and since the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension, it seems appropriate to use it to exemplify how things end.

    The reader’s heart beats faster as the police mount the staircase, only to find the stretched-out body of Dorian Gray, and a picture of him into which a knife has been thrust. [5] A dead crow becomes the dust and trees that surround it. When a Dzogchen yogini dies, in one of the spaces between existences (the Bardo of Luminosity), it is said that she allows her being to dissolve into the Clear Light “like a child leaping into its mother’s lap.” [6] Or she allows her body to disintegrate into rainbow light (Tibetan, jalu). From her point of view, it is as if the body wants to dissolve in this way. Only fragile ego is preventing the inevitable from happening.

    Imagine a good old-fashioned vinyl record player. Now imagine a record called I Cannot Be Played on This Record Player. When you put the record on, the sounds that are recorded on the disk cause the record player to vibrate in such a way that it falls to pieces. Douglas Hofstadter, author of the wonderfully capacious and multilayered Gödel, Escher, Bach, talks about the exploding record player as an analogy for Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. You just can’t design a record player for which there is no nemesis record, just as Gödel showed that you can’t design a coherent logical system that isn't capable of producing a weird, dialetheic sentence that says, “This sentence cannot be proved in this system.” [7] In order to be coherent, a system must be incomplete. Let us extend this axiom to physical things: in order to exist, objects must be fragile.

    This doesn’t mean that theories are never true. It means something far stranger. The theorem states that any well-formulated system will be unable to account for at least one statement that is true on the terms of the system itself. This put paid to Russell and Whitehead’s attempt to systematize mathematics, which relied on a strict and ultimately brittle adherence to the Law of Noncontradiction. Gödel showed how logical systems must self-contradict at some point in order to be true, while Alan Turing showed how physical systems can exemplify Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, by imagining Turing Machines that compute data, visualizing them as spools of tape read by a machine head. Turing Machines provide a graphic, physical version of the Incompleteness Theorem, and in the process exemplify how fragility applies to objects in just the way Gödel applied it to logical systems. You can’t design a Turing Machine that will be able to predict whether all algorithms will halt or go into an infinite loop: “Not-All algorithms are predictable.” In order to be a system that is coherent, there must be at least one sentence that cannot be proved by the system, within the system. The sentence, “This sentence is not provable within this system,” is in a loop. [8] If it is correct, then it is possible to prove it; but what is says is that it is not provable, so it is impossible to prove it. In the view expounded here, dialetheic sentences are symptoms of the double-truthed quality of objects.

    The record player is more than just an analogy. If you make a record that produces the right tones, you could blow up a record player. In fact, this was a specialism of creators of rave music in the early 1990s. I remember going to several raves where the speakers would explode because of a tune called “LFO”—Low Frequency Oscillator, a boondoggle on old synthesizers, but also a joke metaphor for “I Cannot Be Played Through These Loudspeakers.” [9]

    Hofstadter gives the example of a virus. A virus is a piece of RNA or DNA code in a protein packet that says to your genome, “Hey, there’s a version of me somewhere in your system. Go fetch it will you?” This is a version of a Henkin Sentence. [10] The trouble is, this Henkin Sentence comes bundled with a Liar, along the lines of “It is true that I am lying in this sentence.” So you go into overdrive producing copies of the virus in a desperate attempt to solve the paradox, then you die—just like your computer. Thus begins the race between viruses and other lifeforms to detect and destroy viruses and, conversely, to slip through the defenses of lifeforms. The record player story is thus also a story about lifeforms. There is at least one entity out there (it could be lurking in your genome) called something like “If Tim Downloads This, He Will Auto-Destruct.” That’s what mortality means. Life forms exist precisely to the extent that they are fragile.

    Consider objects in general—not just living ones, but all objects. There is an even less metaphorical sense in which the record player story is true for objects. There is at least one other object out there that could bring it about so that a certain object was annihilated. Not only this: it is also the case that the sensuality of an object is what might finally destroy it, which is why even black holes, fatal to other objects, eventually evaporate under their very own steam. As I’ve been arguing, sensuality is not simply decorative candy on the surface of something “more real,” so we should expect this to be the case.

    Objects are fragile, not superficially, but all the way down, ontologically. And this means that they are weak. I mean this without a trace of sneer: we are one of those weak objects. Consider human language. That languages do not beam the thing down in full presence is not some local quirk of language, but a fact about reality. Words such as “this” and “is” are symptoms of a long and jagged history of relationships with nonhumans. Some of the inconsistencies of language are symptoms of our coexistence with other objects. This makes our language inherently weak. Unlike those theorists who want to posit human language as powerful or rich, I claim it is weak and flexible. That the reason why one can say things such as “This statement is false” in English is not because English is rich, but because English is weak. Like the branch of a willow tree, it bends. Software languages are not less expressive than English, but in a way, they are more expressive. Every term really means something. Or really does something. When you try to dissipate the Liar paradox (“This statement is false” and variants) you end up having to jump to another language. This language can also generate the Liar paradox, in a modified form that might even be stronger. Paradoxically, the more rigidly one tries to exclude contradiction, the more virulent become the dialetheias that are possible.

    I can get around “This sentence is false” by imagining that there are metalanguages that explain what counts as a sentence. Then I can decide that “This sentence is false” isn’t a real sentence. This is the strategy of the logician Alfred Tarski, who invented the notion of metalanguage specifically to cope with dialetheias. [11] A Tarski adherent might say that “ ‘This sentence is false’ is not a sentence.” But I can subvert her ploy with the following: “This is not a sentence.” My sentence-virus is worse for the Tarskian than the one she was trying to eliminate. Then she might claim that sentences such as “This sentence is false” are neither true nor false. But in turn you can imagine a strengthened version of the Liar such as: “This sentence is not true”; or “This sentence is neither true nor false.” And we can go on adding to the strengthened Liar if the counter-attack tries to build immunity by specifying some fourth thing that a sentence can be besides true, false, and neither true nor false: “This sentence is false, or neither true nor false, or the fourth thing.” And so on. [12]

    The metalanguage tries to tamp down the problem, but in doing so it becomes more brittle than English. Fundamentally, this is because there is no metalanguage, which is the argument for what Harman has called “sincerity” (see the discussion earlier in this book). And that is because there are objects. A metalanguage would function as a “middle object” that gave coherency and evenness to the others—and there are no middle objects, as we have seen. [13] Since there is no metalanguage, there is no rising above the disturbing illusory play of causality. This issue is more than adjacent to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Inconsistencies such as the Liar are archaeological evidence of a fundamental inconsistency in objects: the irreducible gap between real and sensual objects.

    The irreducible gap Lacan discovers between the subject of the enunciated and the subject of enunciation is made clear in the Liar. [14] There is the I who is saying the sentence and the I about whom the sentence is said. Novelists exploit this gap, knowing full well that all first-person narratives are intrinsically untrustworthy. If you want to play with irony and paradox, write in an autobiographical mode. Why else is Frankenstein written that way? This literary gap is only one among trillions.

    Gödel argues that because of the inherent inconsistency of all theories, you need another theory to explain the semantics of one theory. Each theory requires 1+n others. Doesn’t this sound awfully like the OOO theory of translation, that objects are apprehended in an interobjective space that consists of 1+n objects? You never hear the wind in itself, you hear the wind in the chimney. I part company with most computational linguists, who hold that computational languages are less expressive than English. I think this is not the problem. I think that computational languages are more explicit and therefore more rigid. English has the advantage of being weak, because it evolved to be spoken by flesh and blood objects who were trying to keep on keeping on. [15]

    Closure: This Is the End, Beautiful Friend

    The experience of beauty and of the sublime, argues Kant, is one of tuning yourself to the object. But what is this tuning (Stimmung)? Let’s think about the extreme of tuning. When an opera singer matches the resonant frequency of a glass, the glass explodes. The Tibetan Buddhist analogy for dying is a vase. When a vase explodes, the space inside the vase merges instantly with the space outside. We can briefly surmise that beauty is death.

    Watch a slow-motion video of the opera singer’s effect on the glass. Watch how the glass in the video shudders just before it ceases to exist. “It was so beautiful I almost died.” Theodor Adorno argues that this is what the aesthetic is supposed to do: start a subject-quake, Einschütterung, a little death. [16] An earthquake is when the rhythms between tectonic plates become extremely regular. A stroke is when brainwaves become isometric. Closure is when the frequency and duration of the plot synchronizes with those of a story in a 1/1 ratio. These quakes cancel the difference between a thing and its resonance, its appearance.

    Kant argues that beauty is an experience of coexisting with an object. In this experience, it’s as if the object and the subject suddenly fuse, like the space inside and outside a vase. It’s only a short hop, skip, and jump from here to an object-oriented theory of beauty. Beauty is the end of an object, because in beauty, two objects fuse. Sound waves match the resonant frequency of the glass. When they reach a critical amplitude, the glass ceases to exist. It becomes its environment.

    What is the feeling of being at the end of a story? The feeling of beginning (aperture) is uncertainty. The feeling of middle (development) is cycling and suspension. The feeling of ending is closure. How do stories achieve closure? They begin to correlate the plot to the story in an isochronous way. The frequency and duration ratios begin to match one another. The more they match, the more tension is generated. An action movie is a narrative that reaches closure as soon as possible, and stays there. The Bourne trilogy, for instance, involves almost isochronous narrative sequences throughout. That’s what “fast-paced” and “mounting suspense” mean. You know you have exited the development section in a classic realist fiction when one single event happens and it is narrated one single time, with a roughly isochronous duration. You pop out of the maelstrom of development. You can feel the end approaching. The beginning of chapter 12 of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a masterpiece of economy. By narrating one single event, the narrator exits from the exotic perfumed worlds evoked in the seductive reading and rereading of the decadent book by Huysmans that Dorian is obsessed with in the development section:

    It was on the ninth of November, the eve of his own thirty-eighth birthday, as he often remembered afterwards.

    He was walking home about eleven o’clock from Lord Henry’s, where he had been dining, and was wrapped in heavy furs, as the night was cold and foggy. At the corner of Grosvenor Square and South Audley Street, a man passed him in the mist, walking very fast and with the collar of his grey ulster turned up. [17]

    In three crisp sentences, closure begins. Somehow we anticipate that Dorian will die at the end of the story; or at least, there will be an end, and it is coming. A quake is on its way. Now it’s “only a matter of time.” The story’s ending is included right here, like a splash of cold water.

    Closure is the feeling of death. The feeling of death is a feeling of isochrony: of the two channels of plot and story synchronizing with one another. The plot attunes itself to the story. In so doing, it vanishes, leaving only a few corpses for the police to come and clear things up. The end of The Picture of Dorian Gray is exemplary in this regard. Dorian slashes the picture, and dies—the police run up the stairs to find his corpse—the last few pages seem to be unfolding before our very eyes, as the plot synchronizes with the story. One event is narrated one single time. It’s enough to break the spell of suspension ever more tightly.

    Consider how a drama handles closure. In a play or an opera, closure is when the fourth wall dissolves: the aesthetic screen that separates the audience from the players. This is the moment in the drama at which the audience is made to sense that they are part of the play. It’s formalized in a Shakespeare tragedy when a character speaks directly to the audience in the final scene. In The Tempest, Prospero makes a speech that marks the end of a masque within the play, but which also speaks knowingly to the audience behind the fourth wall:

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep. [18]

    After this, the play is “dying.” The artifice of the play is destroyed, by being heightened: “This is only a play, and you are watching it.” The sensual space in which the play occurs overwhelms the play itself. At the end of The Tempest, Ariel repeats the closure, just to make sure we feel the quake of ending: he asks for our applause to release him from the confines of the stage. The Tempest stretches out the feeling of closure, a long goodbye.

    Dying is a sensual event that occurs in an interobjective space. Closure demonstrates how when one object comes into phase with another, annihilation is near. Death is when a virus, for instance, starts to replicate itself in your genome, using your cells like a photocopying machine. If the cells do this very efficiently, it is called death. Then your body disintegrates. Bacteria eat your rotting flesh. You become bacteria. The bacteria bacteriomorph your body, translating you into bacterian. Worms and fungi eat through the residue. At the time of writing I’m watching a tree stump in my backyard. A rather too big pine tree was cut down at the back of my garden last year. Fungi have been eating into the stump. As the fungi digest the sugars in each ring of the tree, they grow a little bit. What results is a mushroomogram of the tree rings, a series of spreading fungi with rings, quite like the rings of the old tree. It’s quite uncanny: the ringed fungi look like the tree, yet they don’t. The fungi are fungimorphizing the tree. It’s as if the tree rings are being translated into fungese before my eyes. The more complete the translation, the more complete the death of the object.

    Bardo 2

    Yet every translation is necessarily imperfect. There is an element of parody in every death, an uncanny resemblance, as in the figure of the zombie, a corpse that resembles me in every feature, except that it’s a walking dead version of me. The zombie both is and is not me. We argue about whether a human in a “vegetative state” is alive or dead. Fingernails continue to grow after what medicine calls death. And some religions hold that some kind of soul or consciousness exists after physical death. There are all kinds of everyday squabbles about what constitutes death, and this is because of the ontological Rift. When an object is dying—namely, throughout an object’s existence—is it existing or is it simply ceasing to exist? When I stand in a doorway, am I inside or outside the room? By existing, objects have one foot in the grave.

    Nothing dies completely. The physicist Roger Penrose suggests that when entropy reduces everything to massless particles, they will be photons, and the universe can begin again. [19] Evolution turns a swim bladder into a lung. [20] There are more drastic cases of ghostly half-life. Some objects seem to be “waiting for” a new use: objects that clutter attics, kept perhaps as heirlooms but never seen, even by those who inherit them. Underlying all these is an inherent property of all objects whatsoever: objects are already ghosts of themselves, because of the Rift between appearance and essence. On this view, death, birth and continuity are happening “simultaneously,” or more accurately, “equiprimordially.” [21] An object just is a “black hole” with a fading photograph of itself on its surface. [22] As stated in the Introduction, Lucretius, the arch-atomist, is compelled to supplement his atomism with aesthetics: objects are seen in their past as if they all disappear into a black hole: “To see something else is to be affected by an emanation, not the thing itself, such that whatever we do see is an effect of what took place in the past as films or simulacra take time to travel in the void.” [23] An object is self-referential: “What I do is me” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). Yet this self-reference is of the order of the Liar: “This sentence is false.” I and me are subtly different.

    David Wiesner rewrote The Three Little Pigs. In this version, the pigs escape from the book by somehow exiting the page. [24] They find themselves in a curious interstitial space populated with other characters. They bring a dragon back to their world and defeat the wolf. What can we learn from this about our ideological and ecological situation? One is that when we exit from our ideological “world” with its familiar contours, we are still somewhere. Isn’t this the lesson of those interstitial moments in David Lynch movies, in which we see a transition between seemingly coherent worlds? These transitional spaces are not just a void. Maybe philosophy and ideology only thinks these spaces as voids from within a certain kind of philosophical or ideological framework. OOO and Buddhism share something very interesting. They both hold that the interstitial space between things is not a blank void. In fact, it’s charged with meaning, even with causality.

    Objects have an ego, and this ego is fragile. Since the ego is nothing but a palimpsest of “abandoned object cathexes,” as Freud puts it, why couldn’t we apply this theory to every object? [25] Let’s think it in an Aristotelian way. Formal causes are in for a return both in quantum theory and in OOO, for somewhat similar reasons. In what sense is the form of an object its “ego”? The formal cause of an object, rather simply, is just the record of everything that has “happened to” it. A blob of molten glass is blown and cooled, resulting in a wine glass. The form of the glass, its ego if you like, is the record of the objects that struck it, blew on it, snipped it while it was molten, left it to cool. What in rhetorical theory is called memoria is formal cause just as delivery is the sublime.

    Just as the chapter on beginnings rethought the idea of rhetorical delivery, this chapter rethinks the rhetorical art of memory. Memory was a part of rhetoric that came under fire in early modernity. First Erasmus underplayed, then seventeenth-century English Puritans downright banned the art of memory, the various mnemonic techniques practiced down the ages, as it was thought to resemble magic. [26] In the Middle Ages, by contrast, memory, not imagination, was held in awe. [27] The human practice of memory, as a handling and offsite storage of an object in an interobjective (mental) space, often imagined as a building with many floors, eroded. [28] This aided the restriction of rhetoric to mere style (elocutio), as Chapter 1 explored. The absence of memory from rhetoric further depleted the ability of thinking to cope with objects.

    The formal cause of something is its past, its memory, as in the memory inscribed in a silicon wafer. Memory precisely is a state in which “everything is there, but nothing is ever present.” [29] We have already encountered the question of memory in thinking the continued existence of objects in the previous chapter. It seems appropriate then that the notion of bardo would come around once more, since bardos are the repetition of memories. This time, however, we are dealing with the bardo of dying, the way in which repetition is caught in something deadly. The (superficial, given) appearance of an object just is its warping by another object, which is another way of saying that the “past life” of an object is its form.

    What Hegel says about the abstractness of the I cannot be said about how an asteroid piles into Earth, causing a gigantic molten chunk to blurt out the other side and become the Moon. The asteroid never encounters Earth as just a blank screen, onto which it projects its own fantasy, its form—its warping by other objects. The asteroid does not perform a negation of every positive content, a Hegelian “abstraction from all determinateness.” [30] The ego of an object is simply the record of the traumas that happened to it—this goes for the objects called human, for whom the ego is a virtual, sensual object. Thus there are no blank screens in reality whatsoever.


    While the aesthetic mode of beginning is horror–bliss, and the mode of continuing is comedy, the mode of ending is tragedy. This is because, like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, objects all possess an intrinsic flaw or wound, which, after the Greeks, I here call harmartia.

    Somewhere out there, there exists at least one bullet with your name on it, could be a virus, could be your own DNA. Why? The truth is closer to home than a bullet burrowing into one’s flesh. Consider an explosion. An explosion is frightening not only because it threatens me. An explosion is frightening because it’s ontologically uncanny. This uncanniness underlies the physical threat. What uncanniness? Quite simply, an object that just functions in “my world”—a plane, a skyscraper—suddenly comes to life in a very different way. My world wavers for a moment—even collapses.

    An object affects another object by translating it, as best as it can, into its own terms. A plane gouges a plane-shaped hole in a skyscraper. A perfect translation of one object by another object would entail the destruction of that object. Consider again the glass. When an opera singer sings a certain note very loudly, the sound stirs up the resonant frequencies of a wine glass. In slow motion, you can see the wine glass rippling. Then the glass explodes. Why? Of course we know physically, or we think we know. But how about ontologically?

    The sound was able to reduce the glass to a pure appearance. There is an ontological Rift between essence and appearance. This has nothing to do with the spurious gap between substance and accidents. What is called substance and what is called accidents are both on the side of what this book calls appearance. The Rift is irreducibly part of a thing: a thing is both itself and not-itself. I call this double truth of a thing its fragility. The inner fragility of a thing is why a thing can exist at all. Fragility is also why anything at all can happen. Existence is incompleteness. This fragility is activated in what is called destruction. Somehow something interferes with the Rift between essence and appearance and translates the object so radically that the Rift collapses. Nothing can physically insert itself into the Rift. Since objects are enclosed, secret and withdrawn, interference with the Rift must be caused when the object in question aesthetically attunes to its translator, in a process resembling the manner in which my genome creates more viruses under certain conditions. The difference between immanent and external causation does not exist for this theory. This is more efficient than claiming that things are totally destroyed ontically, which would imply that objects are just lumps of blah decorated with accidents, or nothing but bundles of qualities, and so on. On the “ontic destruction” view, an object requires some other object to do the dirty work. Tracing the whodunit story of destruction via another object, we soon return to prime movers and first causes.

    An explosion reveals the fragility of things. But it also reveals the strange inconsistency of things. Beginnings are anamorphic, while endings are beautifully symmetrical. Life is distortion; death is peaceful, as Freud argues concerning the death drive. To begin is to distort; to end is to become consistent. To kill or destroy is to reduce something to consistency: the theory advanced here is the inverse of Badiou, for whom to destroy is to make inconsistent. When I die, I become memories, some crumpled paper in a wastebasket, some clothes. I become my appearances. Yet there can be no perfect translation of an object, because the translator is also an (inconsistent) object. There would be no trace of a perfect translation. Thus there appear cinders, fragments, debris. New objects are uncanny reminders of broken objects. A culture of mourning might arise around them.

    The Rift between essence and appearance is why an object has an outside. The Rift is why an object exists. The Rift is also how an object can die: its inner, irreducible fragility. Every object has some feature labeled “I am not part of this object.” A hamartia (Greek, “wound”). An inner silver bullet, like a physical version of a Gödel sentence. [31] The inner fragility of an object allows it to be destroyed by another object. Much more importantly, however, inner fragility means that an object can “die” all by itself.

    Every object is wounded. A hamartia constitutes the object as such in its determinacy. Impermanence is an intrinsic feature of why an object is an object. When an object comes into phase with its own fragility, it is destroyed. Consider the Hawking radiation emanating from a black hole. Not everything remains caught within a black hole: even a black hole, the densest object in the physical Universe, is internally inconsistent. At some point, the black hole will expend itself. Its hamartia, its inner fragility, causes it to cease to exist. Hamartia is what Aristotle calls a tragic flaw.

    It’s mistaken, then, to see:

    1. Objects as solid lumps in a stream of time that gradually wears them down.
    2. Objects as reifications of a temporal flux.
    3. Objects as decomposable into parts (undermining).
    4. Fragility/death as an occurrence that “happens to” an object from without.

    Fragility is an ontological condition of objects. It doesn’t depend on non-objects. By contrast, (1) through (4) explain fragility by adding to or subtracting from the object. The fact of fragility is due to the simple yet counter-intuitive fact that objects are what they are, and not what they are, at the same time. They are dialetheic, double-truthed.

    Objects have one foot in the grave. The fact that an object can cease all by itself is very satisfying from the standpoint of fundamental ontology. No other objects, let alone relations, are required for an object to “die.” This means that theoretically at least an object can die alone, unknown and unloved. All an object needs to cease existing is to coincide with itself. Once it does that, it evaporates. Reduced to sheer simplicity, the object dies, leaving behind only memories, cinders, sensual impressions. The Rift between essence and appearance collapses. The object evaporates into its appearance-for another object(s).

    Let us delve into the question of fragility a little further. The intrinsic fragility of objects has to do with why we can derive time and space from them. For Kant, the experience of beauty is an object-like entity that seems to inhere both in oneself and the beautiful object: this is what makes it impersonal, or beyond ego. Beauty is universalizable, that is, the kind of interaction that beauty is could be extended to include any other object in the vicinity. If I find the Mona Lisa beautiful, the feeling consists in the idea that everyone should find it so. If I find a particular piece of dance music incredibly beautiful, I want to put speakers on top of the tallest buildings and embarrass my family by broadcasting it to the surrounding world, because everyone should be able to find it beautiful. Yet when I do this, when I threaten people with my beauty, I am no longer within the beautiful experience.

    Why? Kant argues that it’s because beauty is also nonconceptual: it has a certain je ne sais quoi. As soon as I put my finger on it, it’s gone, like Eurydice disappearing back into Hades when Orpheus looks back at her. I grasp at the object as if the object in itself were beauty, and I lose beauty. Or I specify some aspect of the object. Nothing in the object can be specified this way: not the parts, and not the whole. Beauty then is irreducible. I can’t dissolve it into smaller components and I can’t dissolve it upwards (“overmining”) into some holistic vision. Beauty is unique and contingent. Beauty is unspeakable, which is why Kant’s beauty provides the conditions for Humean taste, and not the other way around. It seems as if nice colors and smells and sounds are the condition for beauty, but really the profound freedom glimpsed in beauty is ontologically prior to those things. Why would we even care about those things if it were not for this freedom? That beauty is irreducible is a clue that beauty might tell us something about OOO objects.

    We are driven to the realist conclusion that beauty is evidence of the existence of 1+n objects: myself, the Mona Lisa, the dry air between us. Yet beauty is in none of these objects. What is uncanny and slightly frightening at times about beauty is that it can’t be located, yet it appears to emerge in interactions between things. Beauty then is a kind of lie that is told of an object when it interacts with another object: a beautiful lie. It is as if beauty is everywhere, everyone, for all time. Yet it emerges from a pure contingency. It is timeless only insofar as it is based on objects that seem to be fleeting.

    The mysterious quality of artworks is a signal about the mysterious quality of objects in general. Beauty is a secret that we know exists but whose content we don’t know. When we share it with others, it’s as if we are in on the same secret. We look at each other in amazement or with a knowing look. But it’s impossible to specify what this secret is. Only the fact that there is a secret is of any importance. Beauty is based on the raw fact of the secret as such. The contours of the secret are felt like the coolness of a marble surface to a blindfolded person. Throughout this book I have been using the term secret to account for withdrawal. The secret then is simply the objectness of the object: the fact that objects appear, yet they withdraw from appearance, a double-edged quality that means that there is a permanent Rift in the universe, for any object whatsoever, not just sentient beings and certainly not just humans. This Rift happens both within and between objects. Or rather: it becomes impossible to specify whether the Rift is inside or outside an object. The Rift cannot be located ontically, that is, we can’t point to it anywhere on or inside the object. Yet there it is. This Rift accounts for what I call fragility.

    Now fragility shouldn’t be confused with the fact that things do break. While this is true, its truth is just a symptom of a deeper ontological fact. In other words, objects don’t exist in time like porcelain dolls on a conveyor belt: when they reach the end, they drop off onto a concrete floor and smash to pieces. No: the object is riven in order to be an object. Time as a succession of instants emanates from objects themselves. That is, linear time as we (and whoever or whatever else) experience it is a product of a certain set of interactions between objects, based on their fragility. We can think of physical analogues quite easily. Time emanates from the decay of a radioactive particle; or from the vibrations of a piezoelectric crystal; or from the massiveness of a planet. In a sense, the radioactive particle, such as the carbon used in carbon dating, provides the best example. All objects are isotopes of themselves, uncanny and unstable doubles. Theories of objects and causation that rely on faceless substances or bundles of qualities have trouble with isotopes—real isotopes, not just figurative ones—precisely for this reason. [32]

    Fragility is what explains beauty. Kantian beauty is slightly sad, because it isn’t you. (I indulge here in a little anthropomorphism, since as Jane Bennett argues, this may be a net benefit to our understanding of things.) [33] It’s also a little bit scary because you can’t tell whether it’s pretense or not. It’s the same way with nonhuman and with nonsentient objects. In some sense objects are sad, because they contain kernels of not-themselves, in order to be what they are. Objects just can’t be consistent and coherent at the same time. It seems as if Gödel wrote the rules for existence. Objects could shatter into a million pieces—a million new objects that is—at any moment. Their possibility is predicated on their impossibility. In this sense, objects are not very different from what Heidegger calls Da-sein. [34] We should explore this.

    Heidegger strongly influenced Lacan with his idea that anxiety is the emotion—or attunement as he puts it—that never lies. [35] Angst is a bottom line attunement of being that doesn’t “hinder and confuse” a person who is tuned to their authentic being (Da-sein). It’s what the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, echoing Heidegger, calls basic anxiety. [36]

    Now this talk of Angst all seems a long distance from objects. But is it far away from OOO? Is it not because Da-sein is both potential and “impossible” that Angst appears? This is a slightly subtle argument, so we shall have to bear with each other for a few paragraphs to get it right. But we shall see as we proceed that what characterizes Da-sein, far from being a special human property—or worse, the special property of specific humans (Germans)—is a quality shared by all objects. This quality is dialetheic: double-truthed. Objects are themselves and not-themselves, p ∧ ¬p, as the Introduction argued.

    Within objects are differences from themselves, which is why objects can appear: namely, why they can appear-to some other object. A star-nosed mole smells a thousand delicate perfumes emanating from the soil, because those perfumes are not the soil. The soil perfumes are “isotopes” of the soil, unstable bearers of soil-information to other entities, such as the receptors in the noses of star-nosed moles. This is precisely how Heidegger characterizes Da-sein, “being-there.” Da-sein isn’t objectively present, yet it manifests in all kinds of tunings such as fear and anxiety. In particular, anxiety is a clean attunement to Da-sein since it resonates only with the simple fact of Da-sein as such. In anxiety, the world becomes flat and meaningless. Objects seem to lose their significance for us: they have “nothing more to ‘say’ to us,” in Heidegger’s telling phrase. [37] That is, it is as if we are able to catch an impossible glimpse of their secretiveness.

    Tuned to Da-sein itself, Angst has one foot in the sensual ether and one foot outside of it, in some impossible no-space. This is a point at which language breaks down unless we are willing to admit that (some) things can be dialetheic, both p and not-p at the very same time. For instance, Hegel explains motion, as we saw in the previous chapter, by supposing that objects are here and not-here simultaneously. We could explain being in a doorway like this: we are both inside and outside the room. It becomes impossible to specify, using objectively present, reified measuring devices such as tape measures and stopwatches, just what “being inside the room” is as opposed to “being in the doorway.” If we do, all kinds of Zeno’s paradoxes arise that tempt us to say that nothing is happening, or that there is no movement. The trouble is, we are so habituated to imagining beings existing “in” time that it becomes hard to see how time and therefore events as such flow from objects. This flow occurs when objects emit isotopes of themselves, riven from within by fragility. In this sense, death is all around us. Since the universe just is a huge object, we exist inside death, just like in the Buddhist paintings of the Wheel of Life, in which the whole of samsara takes place within the jaws of Yama, god of death.

    “It was so beautiful I almost died.” Is there more than metaphorical truth in this statement? Is beauty an experience of death, or near-death? Adorno writes that the shudder of beauty shatters the encapsulated subject. [38] When an opera singer sings just the right note, at just the right pitch and volume, the sound waves resonate with the wine glass in such a way as to destroy it. On slow-motion film, we can see how just before it is destroyed, the glass undergoes a shudder. The resonant frequency matches the glass perfectly.

    From the perspective of the alien phenomenology of the glass itself, might this indeed be an “experience” of suddenly losing a sense of boundary? And isn’t this what beauty is? In the event of beauty, a non-self part of my inner space seems to resonate in the colors on the wall, in the sounds pouring into my ears. Hugely amplified, might this resonance actually kill me? “A beautiful way to die”—to be destroyed by vibrations that removed myself from myself.

    For beauty to work, then, there must already be a surface capable of receiving the wound. It seems that the knife of beauty is able to insert itself into the slit between an object’s essence and its appearance. Beauty “works itself in” to the already existing Rift between an object and that same object, the fact that objects are dialetheic, fork-tongued. This Rift is an inconsistency in the object that enables the object to end. When an object is entirely sundered from its appearance, its hamartia gets the better of it: that is called destruction or death.

    Beauty, then, is a nonviolent experience of near death, a warning that one is fragile, like everything else in the universe. Beauty is the shadow of the threat to objects, the threat that is objects. Objects as such carry an inner threat, because of the Rift between essence and appearance. Beauty is the call of the vulnerable flesh and the fragile glass. This explains perhaps why beauty is associated with experiences of love, empathy and compassion, themes that preoccupy pre-Kantian theories of aesthetic affect such as Adam Smith, and that also preoccupy ethical theories based on the Buddhist view of anatman (no-self). It is the reason why we can articulate an ethics of nonviolent coexistence based on beauty. This ethics cannot truly be grounded in the cool Kantian version of aesthetic experience, with its rigid anthropocentrism and sadistic shadow side. It must instead be founded in the project of coming as close as possible to our already shared, disturbing intimacy. Let us begin to explore this.

    When I experience beauty, I resonate with an object. The object and I attune to one another. Kant describes beauty as a tuning process. “Beautiful” is what I say to myself when an impersonal, “object-like” cognitive state arises that seems to emanate from the object itself. It is as if the object and I are locked together in inseparable union, beyond one’s ego. In common prejudice, one supposes that having no ego means not being able to brush your teeth. But according to this argument, you brush your teeth all the time without an ego. That’s happening already. It’s perfectly possible to have a non-ego experience. You are having one now.

    The beautiful object fits me like a glove. Kantian beauty, however, is unlike Aristotelian and Horatian decorum, the traditional way in which the aesthetic is said to be like clothing. [39] Decorum provides objective rules for what a beautiful thing should wear, an external, systematic set of criteria for what counts as beautiful, a checklist. Kantian beauty, by contrast, is a symptom of something more disruptive. Kant thinks this discovery as the transcendental subject, but OOO thinks the discovery as the withdrawal of objects. Yet there is an affinity between these thoughts, because they both imagine some kind of transcendental crack or Rift to be intrinsic to reality. Beauty is not a glove fitting a hand, but more like Death taking you by the hand.

    Beauty is nonconceptual. Nothing in the object directly explains it: not the parts, because this would be sheer positivistic reductionism; not the whole, because that would be another kind of reduction (the parts are now expendable). Yet beauty seems to emanate from this thing. Just this particular, unique thing, is the locus of beauty. Everyone in their right mind should find it beautiful, I think, yet if I were to impose this on others, it would ruin the experience. I know my particular experience of beauty is not shared, but I know that you know what beauty is. A certain unconditional freedom opens up, along with a certain coexistence without content. No wonder Kant considered the experience of beauty to be an essential part of democracy. Beauty is an event in being, a sort of gap, a gentle slit. Beauty allows for a cognitive state that is noncoercive and profoundly nonviolent. [40]

    But what are the conditions of possibility for the experience of beauty to occur? What, as it were, are the phenomenological physics of beauty? As we explore these conditions we uncover a remarkable body of work. The name of this body of work is Alphonso Lingis. Kantian beauty tacitly presupposes a being that can be wounded by colors, sounds, smells, textures and tastes: affected by them, so as to resonate such that the tuning process of beauty can commence. This being is what Lingis explores, in a series of remarkable studies. This is not simply a realm of mere appetite, as Kant suggests, because that would reproduce a difference between humans and nonhumans (animals, for instance) that is untenable and problematic. [41] Moreover, in appetite I roam like a hungry wolf over the carcass of things—it seems as if powerful objects at the very least suspend this aggressive craving, always already suspend it before the event of beauty takes hold. And stranger still, as Lacan noted well, there is a symmetry between Kantian beauty and sadism, a cold lust concerning an infinitely opaque object. [42] Before the gentle slit of beauty is made, then, the knife must be ready and the arm must be in range. It is this dimension, a dangerous and uncanny dimension of “levels” and “directives,” that the thinking of Lingis addresses. [43] Since ego just is the formal cause of an object, what we are talking about when it comes to beauty is an aesthetic resonance with the Rift between essence and appearance. What Lingis shows is that experiences that are beyond our ego do exist, and are profoundly physical. The insights of Lingis inform many of the proposals made in this book.

    Since beauty doesn’t depend on ego, it must be incredibly default to human cognition. OOO argues that this default-ness is present in any interaction between any objects, not just humans and other things. Let’s walk through this rather startling idea. A sample of an object is not the object. An attunement is not the object. Yet it can dial itself very close to the object. If an object were to tune itself perfectly to another object, at least one of them would be destroyed. Think again about the glass. An opera singer sings a note of a certain pitch. The pitch vibrates with the resonant frequency of the glass. The sound is like the glass, but not the glass. The pitch is tuned to the glass. The glass begins to dance, it has a little glass orgasm—don’t they call it the little death?—then it explodes into non-glass. Again: sound waves attuned to the resonant frequency of the glass fit the glass so perfectly that it is destroyed. A tune shatters an object.

    Art can create and destroy things, quite literally. Causality is an illusion-like play of a demonic energy that has real effects in the world. Perfect tuning of an entity to that which is not the entity means destruction: this is what happens when you die—you become your environment. Enveloped perfectly by the soundwaves, does the glass itself experience a kind of beauty? A sudden dissolution of boundaries between the glass and the not-glass, an experience Adorno calls the core shattering that makes the ego disappear? For Kant, beauty is a nonconceptual experience of coexisting with an object. It’s a virtual experience, as if my inner state were emanating from the object. In this experience, it’s as if the object and the subject suddenly fuse, like the space inside and outside a vase. What if the agency comes from the object, from the not-me or the not-glass? What if the as-if quality that Kant sees as a projection of my inner space into the object is indeed an emanation of the object, or based on such an emanation? What if beauty is when an object tunes to our vulnerability? When you hear that deathly musical box sound in that P.M. Dawn song we explored in the Introduction, you really are hearing the possibility of your own death. That beautiful, uncanny musical box, wound up and playing over and over, executing itself. The tip of an iceberg. Beauty is how objects end. Beauty is death.

    Objects Without Presence: Objects Without the Present

    Heidegger argues that the end of something is the beginning of something else. [44] Now this is trivially true: when a wine glass smashes, a thousand fragments are born. But Heidegger means something stranger than this. He means that the end of authentic Da-sein is the “beginning of … something objectively present.” [45] Ends, in other words, are not simply to be found on the outer edges of things when we measure them with tape measures or Geiger counters. Ends of things are within things. Appearance, as appearance-for, is a kind of death. We are living in a universe of death, in which interactions between the isotopes of objects, their uncanny, ghostly apparitions, determines size, shape, duration, momentum, gravitational pull, color, taste and emotional state. Things appear because some kind of death happens. A photon “measures” an electron by changing it. I make the poem real for me by misreading it. Every step on the sidewalk wears it away. Time crumbles from the collapsing of carbon-14 as the atoms become something else.

    The measurement of a quantum destroys its “coherence,” namely its existence in a dialetheic state in which different positions and momenta are “superposed” one on the other. Something definitely exists before measurement, which is why measurement can happen at all. We are not dealing with esse est percipi here. Yet measurement destroys the fragile, wavering quality of an object as it oscillates and not-oscillates: as it breathes, as Aaron O’Connell says (see Chapter 2).

    In Chapter 1 we briefly explored Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, a stirring text on the revolutionary value of poetry. Shelley argues that poetry is an event whose meaning is irreducibly to-come. What makes a poem a poem is that we don’t know what it means yet. Thus poets are “the hierophants of an unapprehended imagination, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” [46] Poems are “timeless” insofar as they ontologically subtend time itself, opening up hitherto unknown possibilities of meaning and action.

    Shelley bases his argument not on idealism, but on a beautifully worked out physicalism that can account for thinking on its own terms. Humans and probably “all other sentient beings,” he writes, are like Aeolian harps, wind lyres that resonate to the motion of the wind. It’s strange to imagine that these harps were common pieces of eighteenth-century household equipment. Imagine Jane Austen’s characters listening to one. The sound is not unlike contemporary drone music by Sonic Youth or La Monte Young. As in Plato’s Ion, the wind is channeled by the strings of the harp, which in turn are channeled by our ears. When the wind stirs the strings, a process of translation is going on. Then these translations are themselves translated: this is Shelley’s image of thinking, the translation of a translation. Since any translation is a transduction, a mistranslation via another object, Shelley’s Aeolian lyre image provides all the tools we need for including thinking in a physicalist realism.

    The essence of the wind withdraws. Thus the “apprehension” of the wind is an elegy for a lost thing. There is no wind in the sound of the wind. Yet what is the essence of the elegy? The elegy’s essence also withdraws. Each vibrant, phasing note of the Aeolian lyre talks about the wind in lyre-morphic ways. There is no end of the series of (mis)translations. The (mis)translations of the wind are as open-ended, then, as the wind itself is withdrawn. Yet the wind is finite, determinate: it’s the wind, it’s not a shrimp cocktail. What we encounter here is a non-teleological finitude of objects. Objects are specific, yet open; they are not a vague blur, yet they refuse to be pinned down. They are already dead, their fate sealed by their inner fragility: dead objects walking. They are undead, spectral and haunting: not quite alive, but not quite brute and inanimate. At a deep ontological level, the future of an object is uncertain. Not because “the future” is hard to predict, but because of the inner chasm, the chōrismos between an object and its sensuality. Contra Heidegger, then, for whom objects are simply props for the human drama and have a history insofar as they are encountered within human worlds, objects of all kinds spread open the future, like mysteriously parting red theater curtains. [47]

    We think of essence as buried away “behind” or “before” an object. But it should by now be fairly clear that the essence of things is in front of objects. However paradoxical this may sound, the essence of a thing is the future, while the appearance of a thing is the past. [48] This rather startling conclusion deserves some further thought.

    What is called matter is on the OOO view simply matter-for. In other words, “matter” is a sensual object, an aesthetic phenomenon that appears as part of causality. What Aristotle calls the material cause of a thing is the being(s) that compose the thing: “what it’s made of.” Matter is a retroactive positing of the thing that was carved, wrought, melted, entangled, to produce the object in question. On this view, materialism is strangely non-materialist, even somewhat “correlationist” or even idealist: correlationism is the dominant post-Kantian view that reality itself only meaningfully inheres in a correlation between a mind and a thing or a world. [49] That is, matter requires some “observer” (sentient or not, human or not is irrelevant) “for whom” matter is posited. “Observing” here does not mean predicating or making some conscious decision. Suppose the “observer” is only the object in question, and that the object is not sentient or intelligent. Its matter is still matter-for, retroactively posited by the existence of the object as such.

    Matter implies the existence of at least one other entity from which the matter in question differs. Think about Derrida’s infamous line: il n’y a pas d’hors-texte. [50] Happily, Gayatri Spivak gives us two translations. The second, parenthetical one is my preferred one: “there is no outside-text.” What this means is not that everything is reducible to pure language. That would be structuralism, which indeed reduces things to their relations. What Derrida is saying, by contrast, is that a text is a closed system (in the terminology of Roy Bhaskar) that is predicated on some kind of externality that it includes–excludes, which it just can’t talk about but which it can’t help talking about in the negative. [51] A word for example depends upon an inscribable surface, ink and a history and culture of writing, various protocols of spelling and so on. The existence of a text is its coexistence with at least one (1+n) withdrawn entities. This is not the whole OOO truth—for OOO, there is a real hammer. But from an OOO standpoint, perhaps Derrida’s insight is the tip of an object-oriented iceberg. OOO is the first and only truly post-Derridean view, rather than a relieved regression from Derrida into an affirmative or positivistic process relationism or some other form of materialism.

    What is called the past is really some other object(s) that coexist with the object in question. The OOO universe just can’t be monistic, nor can it be solipsistic. Though objects are unspeakable, I know they exist. My very existence is predicated on them, not simply because “I am made out of” them, but because an object just is coexistence, even if only with itself, because of the Rift between essence and appearance.

    So much for one aspect of the past, which we have shown is coterminous with matter-for and is retroactively posited by the existing object. Now consider again the ugly duckling of Aristotle’s four causes, formal cause. For many reasons formal causation has been down on its luck in the post-scholastic consensus (otherwise known as “science”). One main reason is that formal causation is often interpreted in a teleological way, and much science acts as a powerful repellant against teleology. If anything, consider the harm that teleologies have done: non-white races are “for” being dominated; cows are “for” eating; and so on. Marx wrote Darwin a fan letter simply because he recognized how The Origin of Species seriously undercut a teleological view of lifeforms. [52] The deeper OOO reason to be suspicious of teleology is that it turns objects into blobs that are given meaning by some “for-which,” some purpose. On this view, until objects are purposed in this way, they just float around in some interstitial realm: to be is to have a purpose-for some other entity.

    Nevertheless, as I have shown, contemporary discoveries in quantum physics may be bringing formal causes back. Might it be possible to revise formal causation while unplugging it from teleology? For OOO, the physical shape of an object, its form, is a form-as and a formed-by: in other words, it is interobjective and thus aesthetic. A glass is shaped the way the breath and hands of a glass blower, a tube and a blob of molten glass interacted. Its shape is the record, the trace of what happened to it. Freud argues that the ego is just the “precipitate of abandoned object cathexes.” [53] Freud’s use of precipitate is marvelously physical, and by evoking a chemical stew rather than a living organism, it opens the way to thinking his discovery beyond the human and beyond life.

    What then if we were to invert this phrase, and argue that the form of objects was as it were their ego? If ego is object-like, then the inverse surely applies. The identity of this glass is the way I use it as a glass by pouring water into it, and the way it was shaped as a glass. And again, there is a profound Rift between the identity of the glass and the essence of the glass, which is not the same as the difference between an undifferentiated blob and a defined shape with stem, neck, weight, sparkle and so on. For lack of a better way of putting it, it’s the difference between the glass and the glass. (“What is the difference between a duck? One of its legs is both the same.”) The glass is a glass and an uncanny not-glass: p ∧ ¬p.

    When we hold a glass, we are holding the past, in a “formal” and “material” sense. What then of the present? What is existing, or continuing, or persisting? It just means being in difference from oneself. Existing thus is futural. It is not-yet. The “present” is not a bubble in between past and future, or a blinking cursor, or a point. The present is difference-from-itself. Presence is a sensual construct imposed on an uncanny intermeshing of appearance and essence. What is called present is hollowed out from the inside by “past” and “future.” We are approaching an OOO interpretation of the end of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which Shelley regards poets as “the hierophants of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” [54]

    Because causality is aesthetic, it’s legitimate to use the thinking of poetry to think causality. Only consider what Harold Bloom says about a poem: “the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem not itself.[55] Likewise, the meaning of an object is another object. We can slightly modify this to argue that the “other object” could uncannily be the very same object, since objects are dialetheic. In other words, the very appearance of an object could be the “meaning” of an object. But this is not the meaning of limpid givenness: not in any sense WYSIWYG meaning (in an age before Microsoft Windows, this meant “what you see is what you get”). This is a shifting, deceptive, illusory meaning. Startlingly, we are beginning to see that the past just is appearance. Contrary to the commonly held belief that appearance is “now,” the formal and material cause of a thing just is its pastness. That must mean that the future is the essence of a thing.

    Let’s pause to repeat that again: appearance is “the past,” essence is “the future.” This is a very strange discovery. Traditionally, the essence of a thing is associated with the past. What was this thing before I looked at it, before it interacted with that other quantum? The quantum theoretical definition of “measure” is “deflect with another quantum.” At this level, the link between perceiving and causing is undeniable, though many consider this to be an invitation to idealism or New Age fantasy. Many of the problems of Aristotelian–scholastic substance theories and post-Kantian correlationism (the Standard Model descended from Niels Bohr is just such a view) stem from thinking essence as past. Thus is born the light-in-the-refrigerator anxiety of the correlationist and the idealist. When a tree falls in the forest… First the tree falls, goes the story, then someone hears it. Or conversely: Maybe if I stop thinking about the light in the refrigerator, there is no light in the refrigerator. But already this is to think time as a “middle object” that gives meaning to the other objects by containing them in its ether.

    We know that OOO holds this to be illegitimate. OOO returns to the substantialities of Aristotle, without the teleology implicit in the idea that things come from some kind of prime matter and are exclusively defined by their telic function: forks are for spearing, ducks are for swimming, Greeks are for conquering barbarians and so on. Form is delinked from telos. Matter becomes just a retroactive positing of the object that was formed, resulting in the “present” object. Form and matter then are different ways of talking about the past, and the past is just the appearance-for of an object. To repeat, on the surface of the black hole into which I have fallen, you see a rapidly fading photograph of my horrified face. [56] The appearance of an object is the past: a simple consideration of special relativity will show this to be trivially the case. [57] A black hole is the densest possible object in the universe, an object from which no information escapes. In their appearance aspect, all objects are like the photograph on a black hole’s event horizon.

    Fancifully, appearance just is the event horizon of an object, the point ontologically “in front of which” causality becomes meaningful. Yet even black holes radiate (Hawking radiation). Why? Because they do not coincide with their appearance. Eventually, a black hole evaporates. Its essence collapses into its appearance. When I die, I become your memories of me, the crumpled pieces of paper in my waste paper basket. [58] The shifting, swirling abyss is not surging behind objects, as it does in some Schellingian accounts of primordial stuff. [59] For OOO, the abyss is right before our very eyes. When I reach for an apple in a red plastic bowl in my kitchen, I am reaching into an abyss; even to look at the apple, to speak about it or write a poem about it, is to plunge into the abyss.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:

    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.[60]

    We have seen how even here, in the midst of a reaffirmation of the Aristotelian haecceity of Duns Scotus (the last time the term ontology could be spoken without a slight blush), there is a difference between “I” and “me”: “What I do is me: for that I came.” [61] What is a thing saying, what is the me? For OOO, what the thing is saying is something like the Liar, “This sentence is false.” Appearances are liars, but in lying they tell the truth. The bottomless play of appearances is paradoxically grounded: the endless dream of causality is subtended by objects that lie too deep for dreams.

    The meaning of a poem is (in the) future. A poem’s “What I do is me” is to have been read, recited, placed in an anthology, ignored, remembered, translated. This future is not a now-point that is n now-points away from the current one. This future is what Derrida calls l’avenir, the to-come, or what I call the future future. In a very strict sense, then, poetry does come from the future. A weird Platonism is in effect, beaming the shadows of objects down from their unspeakable existence in the future future into sensual–aesthetic–causal coexistence. The future future is not some transcendental beyond: there is no beyond in OOO, since this would be a top object par excellence. Nor is the future future a “time” in which the object “resides.” Rather, the future future is the pure possibility of the object as such.

    Withdrawal is this futurality, not as a predictable time, because then it would be ontically given. Nor is futurality an excess, since this concept, beloved by poststructuralism, implies a for-whom the thing is excessive (“whom” could be a telescope or a teabag as much as it could be a human or a fish). Excess is sensual, and belongs to the realm of appearance. If anything, excess belongs in an object’s pastness. Nor is futurality a void, a gap. Perhaps the term openness expresses it best. Withdrawal is openness. Now we can discern more clearly the chōrismos between essence and appearance. It is a Rift between openness and pretense.

    Time is not a series of now-points “in which” objects exist, but instead time flows out of objects in two different ways. The unknown, unknowable essence of the thing is the future; how something appears is the past. This is in accord with physics, since the speed of light guarantees that any sensual impression of a thing is an impression of its past. What I am arguing here is that there is an ontological reason for this, namely that time pours out of objects. The fixity of things, their history, definition and so on, is the past. The openness of things is the future. The present is an “objective” fiction of something immediately “present at hand” (Heidegger, vorhanden). Presence is difference-from-itself, the thing hollowed out from the inside by past and future.

    Measurement gives meaning to the unspeakable secretiveness of things by setting up relationships with the isotopes of those things. The meaning of a thing, then, is caught in its relations, that is, they are past. We just can’t know what an object is until we’ve handled it, tasted it, shot it around a particle accelerator, written a poem about it. Neither can a photon know what an object is until it’s adjusted it in some sense. Yet even then, we do not have the object: we have our knowledge of its feel, its voltage, its flavor. Relations are what establish the significance of an object, and these relations are irreducibly the past. Just as the meaning of a dream or a poem is in the future, the essence of a relation in the sensual ether that is the causal dimension is also in the future: it hasn’t happened yet. The tape measure rests against the child, but in order to know her height, I must read the tape measure with my eyes. The photon is deflected from a crystal lattice, but in order to tell us about it, the photon must record a trace on a photographic plate. Thus time unfolds from relations between and within objects. And thus we can’t specify (except in some ontic or ontotheological way) what happens with relations.

    Process relationism tries to reduce the intrinsic ambiguity of relations. The significance of an event is to come. There is something that appears process-like about this; hence the illusion that things are processes. Relations are uncanny and hollow; there is a not-yet quality to them. Process relationism reduces this uncanniness, which is ironically a feature of the realness of relations. For relations are inherently doppelgangers of objects, and thus they have the quality of demons, intermediaries between things. And so for object-oriented ontology, art is strikingly like what Socrates says about art in the Ion: art is an attunement to a demonic force, akin to the way a magnet resonates with an electromagnetic field. [62] Why? Because when a relation gives something meaning, it skates over the ontological surface of an object, unable to plumb its secret depth. (I use the surface–depth image fancifully: this skating also applies to two-dimensional objects, and so on.) To give meaning is to mistranslate. And furthermore, the meaning of a meaning is another mistranslation: the meaning of a relation is another relation. Time is born from this fundamental error.

    The fact that the “meaning” of a relation is yet another relation is an object-oriented way of extending Heidegger’s argument about the futural quality of Da-sein to all beings. [63] The significance of things to one another is unspecifiable, irreducible to smaller components or to larger wholes. Yet this significance does exist, haunting objects like a ghost. “Futural” doesn’t mean that at some point x the significance of relations will be settled. It means that relations have a strange hollowness and openness throughout their being. Like paintings or pieces of music—just like them, since relations just are aesthetic—relations between objects are weirdly unclosed and cryptic. Yet they are determinate: they just are this painting, that tragedy, these musical notes. When we specify what they are, all we do is add another set of relations.

    Something like death happens in the act of specifying. Specification forecloses sets of possibilities. When a subsequent relation perfectly tunes to the physical form of an object, that object is destroyed. Every object is a Kantian. Hume derives beauty from having a nervous system. But for Kant, beauty is a signal from something ontologically upstream of nerves and brains. And so Kant will, despite his correlationism, provide material for an OOO theory of beauty and causality. On this theory, beauty is an interobjective state in which one object attunes to another one.

    Tuning exploits the Rift between essence and appearance. Kant refuses to locate beauty “in” any specific entity such as colors or sounds. To do so would be to allow for the possibility of making a pill that would give me all the sensations of beauty, and Kant has already decided that beauty is not reducible to nerve firings. Yet beauty is there, even though we can’t specify it. Kant’s theory of beauty, then, is irreductionist. An OOO theory of causation should be very interested in it indeed. Like a knife with a diamond blade, beauty works its way into the Rift between essence and appearance. Somehow beauty is able to turn an object inside out, as if we could for a second glimpse its essence in its appearance. It is no accident that Lacan associates Kantian beauty with sadism, then. For Keats to posit the Grecian Urn as a “still unravish’d bride of quietness” is to fantasize a world in which an object can be destroyed over and over again without deterioration. [64]

    Tuning ruthlessly exposes the harmartia of an object, its inner wound, its non-identity with itself. Just before it shatters, the glass quakes, resembling for a moment that breathing tuning fork that Aaron O’Connell made. It ripples, then it ends “for real.” Beauty cruelly ignores the coherence of the object, its “ego.” In beauty, an object is vaporized. It loses its memory. As I argued above, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that beauty is death.

    When the glass ends “for real,” we can never specify when exactly this moment takes place. We are faced with a Sorites paradox: is it when the glass loses a certain number of coherent features? How many? We can only conclude that just like the experience of Kantian beauty, death happens outside time construed as a linear sequence of moments. Strictly, nothing has happened. There is no glass. The form, the memory of the glass, has vanished. Yet this impossible, timeless moment of beautiful death is also the birth of a host of other objects. The glass shatters. Twenty shards of glass lie strewn on the dining room floor. One has penetrated my hand. In this death, a kind of reincarnation takes place. The formal properties of the glass are transmitted into different objects that bear an uncanny resemblance to the original. “Matter” is just the term for previous life of an object: these are shards of glass; this is a picture frame of wood; that is a mountainside of granite; this is the sound of the wind in the treetops. An object becomes matter-for. Form deliquesces into matter. I see anamorphic pieces of glass in my hand—something has been born, and from that I infer the death of the glass, which I can’t point to anywhere in my given space. The “impossible” symmetry of ending is strictly nowhere in ontically given spacetime. Small wonder then that many philosophers are tempted to conclude that beauty is nonphysical, ideal and so on. What I see around me in ontic space are distortions, cracks everywhere, suspended over one another like lines of music.

    In the moment of an object’s ending, two distinct modes of time emanating from two kinds of object relations intersect. The futural not-yet-ness of relationality looms, but is cut off by the objectifying power of a destructive relating. The opera singer tunes her pitch just right—suddenly the glass is at an end. Yet a cone of time emanates into the “past,” retroactively positing a whole new set of objects: hey, that’s a shard of glass in my finger. Recall that the sublime is the discovery of the proximity of an object (Chapter 2). The object is always already there, before I reach out towards it with another set of relations. It isn’t the case that the glass disappears, and “then” the shards are born. The two events occur in different ontological dimensions. The glass forgets that it’s a glass, gives up its glassness when the destructive tuning exposes its not-glass qualities. Watch a slow-motion video of a glass shattering to a perfectly tuned soundwave. The glass wobbles, breathes; then the glass stops breathing and just shatters. We can’t specify when the glass becomes the not-glass. This becoming happens outside of linear time, in what Heidegger calls the Moment. [65] Yet something else is happening. New relations are being born that constrain and limit things, giving a whole new “for” to matter-for. The glass is forgotten—not by us, but by the shards, which now carry anamorphic traces of glass memory. Time flows out of the shattering and the new objects blissfully ignore their fragility, caught in the temporal wake of surrounding things. Something died, yet this death is nowhere to be found in objectively present things. Almost everything goes blithely on its way: there’s no use crying over spilt milk.


    1. T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 2.3–4, Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983). return to text
    2. Keiji Nishitani, On Buddhism, tr. Seisaku Yamamoto and Robert E. Carter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 156. return to text
    3. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 334. return to text
    4. Jean-Paul Sartre gives an elegant account of this in Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, tr. and ed. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984), 41–42, 61–62. return to text
    5. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Mighall (London: Penguin, 2003), 212–213. return to text
    6. Padmasambhava, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States, tr. Gyurme Dorje, ed. Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa, introductory commentary by the Dalai Lama (New York: Viking, 2006), 176. return to text
    7. Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 75–81. return to text
    8. Graham Priest, In Contradiction: A Study of the Transconsistent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 39–50. return to text
    9. LFO, LFO (Warp Records, 1990). return to text
    10. Robert M. Solovay, “Explicit Henkin Sentences,” The Journal of Symbolic Logic, 50.1 (March, 1985), 91–93. return to text
    11. Priest, In Contradiction, 9–27. return to text
    12. See Graham Priest and Francesco Berto, “Dialetheism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. return to text
    13. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, tr. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), 311. return to text
    14. Jacques Lacan, Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud,” Écrits: A Selection, tr. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977 (French 1966)), 146–178. return to text
    15. Mark Changizi, “Why Even Data from Star Trek Would Have Fuzzy Language,” http://changizi.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/why-even-data-from-star-trek-would-have-fuzzy-language/, accessed October 8, 2011. return to text
    16. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, tr. and ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 245–246, 331; see also 113, 281, 323–324, 346. return to text
    17. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 141. return to text
    18. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1987), 4.1.148–158. return to text
    19. Roger Penrose, Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe (New York: Knopf, 2011), 146, 150, 212; Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (New York: Vintage, 2007), 436–437, 541, 978. return to text
    20. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. Gillian Beer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 160. return to text
    21. Heidegger’s term for the features of Da-sein. return to text
    22. Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 95, 184. return to text
    23. Levi Bryant, “Lucretius and the Wilderness,” http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/lucretius-and-the-wilderness/. return to text
    24. David Wiesner, The Three Pigs (Clarion Books, 2001). return to text
    25. 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
    26. Francis Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Pimlico, 2007), 57, 121, 133, 137, 201, 233, 267, 274. return to text
    27. Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1. return to text
    28. Carruthers, The Book of Memory, 18, 38, 50, 107, 139. return to text
    29. Michel Henry, “Material Phenomenology and Language,” Continental Philosophy Review 32 (1999), 343–365 (351). return to text
    30. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 395. return to text
    31. This is based on Harman’s argument that Angst is not that different from the tool/broken tool structure. Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Peru, IL: Open Court, 2002), 95–97. return to text
    32. Arda Denkel, Object and Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 204. return to text
    33. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 199–120. return to text
    34. Heidegger, Being and Time, 134–135. return to text
    35. Heidegger, Being and Time, 316. return to text
    36. Chögyam Trungpa, The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, ed. Judith Lief (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), 9–10. return to text
    37. Heidegger, Being and Time, 315. return to text
    38. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 245–246, 331. return to text
    39. Horace, On the Art of Poetry, in Aristotle, Horace and Longinus, Classical Literary Criticism, tr. T.S. Dorsch (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 82–83. return to text
    40. See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 241. return to text
    41. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment: Including the First Introduction, tr. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 45–46, 51–52. return to text
    42. Jacques Lacan, “Kant with Sade,” tr. James B. Swenson Jr., available at http://www.lacan.com/kantsade.htm, accessed July 11, 2012. return to text
    43. Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 25–38. return to text
    44. Heidegger, Being and Time, 221. return to text
    45. Heidegger, Being and Time, 221. return to text
    46. Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2002), 509–535 (535). return to text
    47. Heidegger, Being and Time, 355. return to text
    48. Heidegger, Being and Time, 353, 355–356. return to text
    49. The locus classicus is Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5–7. return to text
    50. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 158. return to text
    51. Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (New York: Routledge, 2008), 56, 82, 85, 124, 212. return to text
    52. Gillian Beer, “Introduction,” in Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. Gillian Beer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), xxvii–xviii.. return to text
    53. Freud, The Ego and the Id, 24. return to text
    54. Shelley, Defence, 535. return to text
    55. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 70. return to text
    56. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, 334. return to text
    57. David Bohm, The Special Theory of Relativity (London: Routledge, 2006), 158–174. return to text
    58. See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 41–42, 61–62. return to text
    59. 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
    60. Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). return to text
    61. For haecceity, see John Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings, tr. Allan Wolter (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 166–167. return to text
    62. Plato, Ion, tr. Benjamin Jowett (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ), available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/ion.html (accessed October 7, 2011). return to text
    63. Heidegger, Being and Time, 298–303. return to text
    64. Lacan, “Kant avec Sade.” return to text
    65. Heidegger, Being and Time, 311. return to text