“What is there?” An Introduction to OOO and Art (Part 1)

January 22, 2013 · Print This Article

What is Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and what sort of questions does it pose for art and aesthetics? Lets start with looking at the name of the movement backwards.

Ontology is the philosophical study of what there is. A way of examining the question is to re-arrange the question asked, which is to say, ‘What is there?’

The question of ‘what is there’, is an odd one, especially to those who don’t ordinarily have a philosophical disposition – it isn’t something you would come out with in a conversation for example. But nevertheless, the question of ‘what is there’ also defines what sort of orientation is insinuated in OOO. As soon as anyone rummages around this ontological question for long enough we discover that we are Oriented towards something; it might be a pragmatic orientation, or maybe something commonplace and yet weird – inexplicably, unusually weird. The question of ‘what is there’ can be applied to anyone in any situation; implying a sense of adjustment or familarization with ones surroundings, but also in the sense of establishing their own peculiar location in strange circumstances; acclimatizing, accustoming, attuning, aligning.

So ‘what’ is it that’s being studied here? The ontological commitment of the movement (what there is) and what it must be oriented towards (what is there), happens to be the Object or thing. Ask yourself, what is there? You may reply rather awkwardly, there are lots of things here; mugs, wallpaper, dust, computer chairs, the keyboard button ‘O’, spoons, trees and god knows what else. But it is also the case that I can conjure up ridiculous things within me that will never see the light of day in the same way the world arrives at my senses; mystical creatures of a sombre mood, square circles and cats that speak German. According to the major proponents of OOO, all of these things, both human and not-human are objects. They exist and we orient towards them.

But there are two realist interventions within OOO; that this orientation of ‘what is’ is never uniquely human, nor special to human understanding, and that no object cannot be privileged over any other, including the individual object which aims to be understood. So what is there? All objects are there – although this is complex.

The study of ‘what there is’ and ‘what is there’, can never be a question of what exists solely for human interpretation and assumption. The question of ‘what there is’, is not the same as ‘what is there’ – for a spoon is there in a place or position near to me, on a shelf, a desk, in a mug. We ignore it, even as we use it – and yet it still ‘is’ there in existence. It is real, it exists without me, despite me requiring its substantial reliance and frequent ignorance. The spoon’s autonomous adventures in a shelf or a sink, never crop up until I ponder over it, but that has little effect on the autonomy of the spoon. The same can be said of sun radiation, my bank details, my MacBook – or oxygen molecules that pass through my alveolar capillaries; and whilst some of these objects remains critically important for my survival, none of them can justify any privileged reason to exist over anything else.

The key OOO difference between ‘what there is’ and ‘what is there’, is the difference between knowing that there is an object and not knowing it. The first is a statement or conviction, the second is a question. The departure of OOO, as a study and movement, is identifying this difference. It simply states that we know there are spoons, organs, chairs, armies, planets and cocoa-beans: we just don’t know what they are. Our orientation of the thing – ‘what is there’ – hopelessly grasps at them for one reason or another, and yet we never grasp the thing itself – the ‘what there is.’ The lynchpin of OOO – philosopher Graham Harman – terms this ‘withdrawal’, following Martin Heidegger; nothing we can do or say manages to fully explain or understand objects in their entirety. ‘What is there’ can only ever be a strange exercise of translation, or of a secondary description. The ‘what there is’ of the object itself – its primary reality – cannot be known nor fully demonstrated when asking ‘what is there?’

There are then, two sorts of ‘what is there’ – a generic one, which fathoms different things quickly, scanning over contents within a menu or a desk. But there is a more direct version of ‘what is there’, which examines the hidden contents of one or more specific things; like a fishing pool, a molecule, a planet or even the contents of a painting.

However it must be said that for OOO, the ‘what is there’ is also not a principally human question, despite being a different question from ‘what there is’. Objects are also oriented towards other objects. Each object has its own characteristic, individual, operation for foraging out the orientation of ‘what is there’, irrespective of cognition, reasoning or experience.

In the case of animals, this isn’t too hard to speculate on; the ‘what is there’ for the robin, requires foraging for food and nutrition whilst fending off hostile threats and unexpected weather. But for OOO this insight need not be restricted to the animate; the ‘what is there’ for the security computer program identifies and removes external threats in its own image, just as much as the ‘what is there’ for the falling boulder could be any contingent blockage or unfortunate creature that stands in its path. Each relationship has the same metaphysical properties, the same equality of relation between anything else.

It is for this very reason, that OOO shrugs any primary privileging of monism (everything is one or ‘nature’) or human access (everything is a product of culture). Its ontology is not an orientation of one thing, of one nature, one scientific law, nor reduced to specific things such as discursive cultures or political hegemony: it speaks only of individual, real objects. This ontology only contains detached, disconnected, disjoined objects, with each irreducible object partly connected towards another irreducible entity, like a continuous box of finite magnets being repeatedly thrown down a infinite staircase. Each magnet might be locked together with another, and then separated soon after repelling or connecting with something else – forever doomed to repeat the involuntary question of ‘what is there’ on its finite journey.

Every proponent of OOO has a different insight and a different collection of metaphors to illustrate their nuanced ontological differences. Such bodies of work have different methods of asking, ‘what is there’, without getting a lot back in return from the world. These descriptions only offer a brief summary of the differences between them.

Graham Harman’s ontology borrows and radicalizes past achievements in the phenomenological ‘object‘, not only advocating a strict difference between ‘real objects‘ and ‘sensual objects‘ (the latter which tries to account for the dream-like aforementioned cats who speak German), but also a demanding non-relational ontology, where no object can ever be fully reduced to its relations.

Levi Bryant speaks not of objects, but of difference machines, or systems whose adventures are structurally open, but operationally closed. Bryant’s machines are material processes that have differing power  according to their contextual situations, and these instigate different, potential, namely ‘virtual’ effects within the activity of the entity.

Tim Morton speaks of ecologically strange ‘hyperobjects’ – massively distributed transcendent entities (such as climate) whose viscosity and sticky-ness clamber onto our awareness and yet remain invisible. For Morton, objects are in essence, a blind contradiction of inconsistency; they are both themselves and somehow, not themselves, wandering in and out of a chaotic world, not tailored for our sole understanding.

And lastly there is Ian Bogost, whom also speaks not of objects, but of units, and the tenuous operations of units. Each unit has a hidden procedurality of operation, which is never made explicit nor fully revealed. His iteration of OOO is a tiny ontology: whole infinite universes crammed into specific things, with each one being a cog in another machine, or a module in another program.

So how would OOO, in its various orientations, engage with and deliberate on art and aesthetics? How would this ‘schematic of being’ help artists understand their own work or reinterpret its historical significance? The question of ‘what is there’ must be, I think, an aesthetic call before anything else and this suitably serves as the focus for the next part.

4 Responses to ““What is there?” An Introduction to OOO and Art (Part 1)”

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