The DEW Lab

Curved Ontology

I am not a philosopher. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know it was an option. But I do thoroughly enjoy philosophy. And that is how I would like to preface the following essay; a collection of thoughts that may or may not contribute to my imminent dissertation proposal.  What I wish to explore in my research is how media seem to orient other media around themselves. I want to explore how entire texts can be written around a single object; how people can believe in the supremacy of the sign, the icon, or the symbol; how people can accept the hyper-real, the hegemony of the photograph or the video camera or binary code. While the idea of the hyper-real may be recent, the notion of all reality contained a single object is not. Eastern philosophy speaks of understanding the entire universe from a single grain of sand, a sentiment that was later summarized by William Blake in the following lines:

“To See a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour” (“Auguries of Innocence”).

  We can read this statement as true by considering that all aspects of existence can be connected or related to that single grain of sand. For instance, the grain of sand in relation to
All of these objects can be considered as related to or extended from the grain of sand. What’s more, the object being extended does not need to be a concrete, physical thing. In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach demonstrates how all of Western literature can be oriented around a single word: mimesis. It’s quite telling, however, that in his expansive analysis Auerbach neglects to define this central term. This is because under examination the concept of ‘mimesis’ does not maintain its apparent integrity and structure; the center cannot hold as any attempt to define the term results in an infinite regress. Why? Because mimesis requires a stable definition of reality, a fixed point that would provide meaning to the surrounding concepts. If we assume, as Auerbach does, that print can accurately represent reality, then a teleological reading of Western literature where realism increases from Homer to James is a perfectly sustainable argument. But what is realism? How is Flaubert more ‘realistic’ than Cervantes? The printed word is arbitrary and completely indifferent to the distinction between the mythic and the mundane. In the end, Auerbach is both correct (texts do become more ‘realistic’ over the past millenia) and incorrect (literary ‘realism’ is a subjective position, enabled by literacy and a strong belief in the connection between signifier and signified) And here we have the paradox of media: they both are and are not. It is important to note that, according to Saussurean linguistics, signifier and signified are understood through negative differentiation—they are apprehended in the total field of their relations as that which they are not (the signifier ‘red’ is hopelessly vague until it is considered within the entire colour spectrum, thus giving ‘red’ the potential to signify a wide range of wavelengths). But together these two negatives paradoxically add to form a positive in the sign. (My understanding of negative differentiation was developed from Daniel Chandler’s discussion on the subject here) Another way to consider the difference between negatives (signifier/signified) and positives (signs) is through the (human) senses. For negative differentiation can be thought of as functioning like touch. The tactile sense operates through bounds, such that when we touch something that does not relate the sense of being touched we know we are touching something ‘not ourselves’ (try squeezing the tips of your index finger and thumb together, thereby completing the circuit of touching/being touched). It follows that touching knows only boundaries, peripheries, borders-–it lets you know where the table is not but never where the table is. Exercise: Close your eyes and run your index finger over the surface of the device you are reading this on. Try to consider the object only in regards to your experiencing it in relation to your index finger. Now imagine defining that object as a whole by that experience alone. Ask yourself, where is the monitor/laptop/tablet? Touch engages objects as existing everywhere all at once. The laptop, has its glossy surface, its matte screen, its rows of smooth rectangular keys, its grated vent that causes your finger to skip from plastic bar to bar, passing over open spaces leading into its dark interior; that is to say, the laptop is dispersed and its distinction from its surroundings lies not in what it feels like (its tactile ‘information’ hasn’t even begun to be tapped from this cursory interaction) but in what feels distinct from it. Tactilely speaking, the question isn’t where something is but where it isn’t. In other words, so far as your index finger is concerned, there is no there there. In contrast, sight is positive, additive; things suddenly appear; the object is the center, the focus, one that exists only by its increased definition from the periphery. If I asked ‘Where is the laptop?’ the answer is simply to point and say ‘There it is.’ Again, we have a paradox: an object that is both ‘there’ and ‘not there.’ This has led me to the conclusion that touch is to the signifier as sight is to the sign. And while some objects can be both seen and touched, all objects can be understood both as signifiers and as signs. That is, in terms of their qualities and their being. Consider our grain of sand, how it reflects sunlight in such a manner that it appears yellowish to the human eye. The yellowness of the grain of sand is not part of the grain of sand so much as it delimits the boundaries of the grain of sand. In other words, the identity of the grain of sand is not to be found in ‘yellow’ but rather its ‘yellowing’ of light; its unique curvature of light, the effect of its being, suggests the boundaries of the object itself. If this notion is intelligible at all (and I’m not sure that it is) then what we have here is a tactile, as opposed to visual, description of an object. Vision suggests that an object is where it appears to be. Tactility reminds us that we only ever experience a single boundary or border. Visual: the center of attention. Tactile: the borders of an object without center. Together they form a center that is not a center or a there that is not there. This distinction is crucial to understanding the confusion surrounding objects. For what we have here is a paradox, in the McLuhans sense:

“McLuhan showed that paradox, like metaphor, establishes the ratios of a truth, for truth cannot be just one thing, nor can reality, under electric conditions” (Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, Introduction to Essential McLuhan).

  What flat ontology suggests to me is that the orientation of an object towards all other objects is truth in ratio, or simply a truth. Consider that the grain of sand is always already oriented towards all other objects. That orientation, as OOO tells us, is as valid as that of the human, the sparrow, the moon beam, and so on and so on. But in a sense, the ontology is only flat to an external observer; a sign of a visual bias. Just like ‘red’ is a collection of wavelengths but exists no where among them, flat ontology is (to borrow a phrase from the title of Levi Bryant’s OOO text) a ‘democracy of objects’ where each object exists hegemonically. This is not unlike Levinas’s discussion on being and truth:

“The truth of being is not the image of being, the idea of its nature; it is the being situated in a subjective field which deforms vision, but precisely thus allows exteriority to state itself, entirely command and authority: entirely superiority. This curvature of the intersubjective space inflects distance into elevation; it does not falsify being, but makes its truth first possible” (Totality and Infinity 291)

  We could say something similar of objects; such that objects do not falsify being, but they make a truth first possible. In other words, paradoxically, in a flat ontology, all objects curve. All objects tell it slant. To consider an object, then, is to consider another orientation; to argue for one true orientation is therefore absurd, for to consider anything is to move from one curving to another curving. (It was David Wills in Dorsality who first pointed me to Levinas, and in this context his concept of ‘dorsality’ as a constant turning that defines the human experience is quite useful here). I don’t believe this contradicts current OOO scholarship but rather it is a conclusion that follows from the premises established by OOO. Consider that in the terms of OOO, objects withdraw from their relations ad infinitum (Harman). It follows that, in a sense, we have a periphery (shades of red) without a center (no single thing is ‘red’). Or perhaps we could say that objects centralize as they decentralize. This would lead to the conclusion that the whole is the orientation of its parts. For example, Auerbach’s undefined concept of mimesis attains its validity from its centering; it orients or curves Western literature around mimesis. The curvature of mimesis distorts texts, polarizing them into ‘abstract myth’ and ‘concrete realism.’ Thus, at the center we have true, unadulterated mimesis, with Woolf, James, Flaubert pulled closest to the center. Extending outward from that center we find Cervantes, Medieval manuscripts, ending with Homer at the farthest reaches. But this orientation only comes about by dis-orienting itself from other, equally valid interpretations. The conclusion, then, is that, as Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone have noted, reality is not just one thing. This means that not only is ‘reality’ experienced only in ratio but it only ever exists in ratio. All objects only ever exist and relate to all other objects through a ratio of their being. By ratio here I mean an organization of parts into a whole; and so, the being of other beings cannot be exhausted because being is orientation. In other words, one cannot be without orienting other beings. It is important to note that in this curvature, one does not bend a fixed reality that is simply beyond comprehension. The whole is the orientation of its parts. All parts orient. And no whole orients all parts. Therefore, reality is always already bent or curved. Within this framework, a medium, as a concept delineated from object, is simply an object that curves other objects in a manner similar to how the human senses curve objects. The curvature is the message. What OOO suggests to me is that the ontological existence of other beings means a plurality of centrisms. Even the virtual properties of an object, those qualities not manifested in its current context, are always already in orientation. In other words, the there that isn’t there of the grain of sand is always already oriented towards all its relations, actual or potential. The trick here is that certain orientations are more ‘beneficial’ than others. This is similar to how McLuhan thought of art objects as temporally advantageous media — art as a Distant Early Warning system, alerting the populace to potential changes in the sense ratios caused by mass media. In the vernacular of this post, one could say that art is a temporally advantageous orientation. In this sense, OOO teaches us how to be artists (or carpenters, following Ian Bogost). That is to say, by considering how other objects distort/curve/orient beings, with the understanding that no thing exists without curving, we can remain prepared to maintain disbelief, to counter any and all reductive and totalizing arguments, to reject all hegemonies of objects. The task has been and will continue to be to increase the fluidity by which we move between and adopt new orientations. I think environmentalists would agree that a temporally advantageous orientation would be one that centers the nonhuman. Thus, object oriented ontology itself is a temporally advantageous orientation, as Timothy Morton continues to prove.