the ambient method

Thinking about method, I’m inclined to say there are three dominant approaches to figuring things out. You can proceed deductively, of course, as Descartes and Spinoza. You can proceed inductively like the empiricists. Or you can proceed adductively, which is to say, you can forgo the deduction and induction in favor of adducing enough evidence that your readers are convinced of the truth of your case. This, I think, is what phenomenology is up to. And part of its way of proceeding is to evoke the ambience of the phenomena it chooses to describe. This is one way it carries out the adductive method, and it has done so with no small degree of success.

against phenomenology

This summer I’ll be writing a brief book that will probably be called Against Phenomenology. The title is meant to be provocative, but it is not a wholesale rejection of phenomenology by any means. Instead, by looking at representative passages regarding phenomenological method in Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Henry, and Marion, I will argue that phenomenologists are incapable, qua phenomenologists, of defending metaphysical realism. The paper I gave recently at Villanova, which focused on the realist rhetoric scattered throughout the corpus of phenomenology, was a precis of this book.

This will not simply be a rehashing of Janicaud’s complaints, as I will not be focused on the so-called theological turn. I want to take phenomenological method seriously in order to figure out what kinds of statements it permits and prohibits. It seems that a prohibition of metaphysical statements is germane of phenomenology. I will also take seriously Meillassoux’s claim that phenomenology represents the strong version of correlationism. If he’s right, this poses a problem for the theological turn. As indicated in the title of my Villanova paper, I’m especially keen to adduce the realist rhetoric, or what I’m calling the ‘rhetoric of concreteness’, at play in phenomenology. This rhetoric is best understood as a species of what Tim Morton calls ‘ambient poetics’. It is often employed by phenomenologists sympathetic to realism as a way around the enunciative prohibitions demanded by phen. method.

With any luck, the book will only be 100 pages or so. Barring any obstacles, it might be written by summer’s end.

morton on art as conspiracy

I hope Tim doesn’t mind me rephrasing him in order to draw a parallel with my previous post. Let me just quote him:

you have to wonder whether your poem about global warming is really a hyperobject’s way of distributing itself into human ears and libraries.

This reminds me of Levi’s new project, The Domestication of Humans, which has resonances with Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. At the end of the day, what we find out in all of this is that its objects that animate us with their devices and tools, their flirtation and seduction.

what is an object?

This is a question I’ve begun to answer here and here. It’s certainly a metaphysical question, but one that I am inclined to think about in aesthetic terms. The short answer is this: an object is a conspiracy of sensations (or, if you prefer, qualities). For me, a quality is a sensation. It’s a mistake to see sensations as mental events. Sensations do not reside in the mind; they are external to it. An object, then, is what an empiricist might call a bundle of sensations, so long as we are clear that these sensations inhere in the extramental world.

From the phenomenological perspective, there is no need to posit a substance below the sensations. Objects appear to us and seem to enjoy a kind of independence from one another. This independence seems only phenomenal, however, because as soon as we begin to consider the relations in which the object is caught at any moment (physical laws, semiotic systems, affective attachments, etc.) we are led to what Tim Morton calls “the ecological thought.” Does that mean that objects reduce to ecological relations? Not at all. It just means that at the material level they never act alone; they always conspire with other objects. Whatever power they possess is an assembled, a ‘confederation’ in Jane Bennett‘s words. Consider how the object differentiates itself, or finds itself differentiated, from other objects at the aesthetic level. Levi’s blue mug would stand out from the red wall of my study not because from my perspective the wall forms a horizon upon which the blue mug is projected, but because blue and red (not to mention the wall’s texture and the mugs contours) contrast with one another and mark their differences, yielding a scene in which my sensorium is forced to acknowledge the existence of a mug, a wall, a scene, a room… It is not that the room and the mug are internally related, but that their manifestation is contingent upon a relation, some relation. This is not to say that their existence is relational, for the mug is never fully absorbed by any one of its relations–it withdraws from any particular relation, as Graham puts it.

But red and blue are the result of how light affect my eyes, right? Yes and no. The physical explanation of color calls for another account, one which considers the material conditions that ensure that our visual world is multicolored. This is neither a physical nor a phenomenological question, but a metaphysical one. When someone points out that the Indigo Bunting is not really blue, they are making a physical point (I take this example from Sartwell’s Six Names of Beauty). But it is also more than that. It indicates that there is a dark side of the visual realm, one which effects what we see without resembling what we see.  It would be wrong, I think, to say that this dark side is devoid of aesthetic aspects. Indeed, it is the reality of the aesthetic. [Levi calls color an 'exo-quality', and I think I'm in agreement on this point.]

An object’s independence is asserted when it escapes absorption into any single relation, but it is also asserted when it effects some other object. An object’s identity/independence is determined by its effects. This is a point I borrow from Spinoza. A brick passing through a window enters into a relation with that window, causing that window to shatter. The brick may remain intact, the window not so much. The solidity of the brick and the fragility of the window, which are both aesthetic features–sensations–conspire at the moment of impact to create a singular event, even if not a singular thing. The window suffers more of a transformation than the brick, but neither’s reality is reduced by the event. Aesthetically speaking, the window is radically altered, but arguably not materially.

What is meant here by ‘materially’? Matter is perhaps nothing more than a conspiracy of qualities, or a set of sensations that unite for some time into a disposition. Fragility, then, is explicable at the molecular level, but also at the aesthetic level. Tap two crystal wine glasses together: you can hear their fragility. The difference between steel and wood can be described in aesthetic terms, how they feel, look, smell, etc., when a person encounters them with her senses. But we must also keep in mind that steel and wood interact with each other and manifest themselves relationally in ways that we cannot fathom, just as we do not know what it is like to be a brick at the moment that it impacts a window. Our ignorance does not entail that there is nothing to be said about the aesthetics of this event. Fragility is not in the eye of the beholder.

Working from the premise that objects interact not only physically, but aesthetically (consider the reflection at the top of this blog), along with the premise that sensations affect us and induce us to do things (see, for example, Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics or Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body), I would like to open speculation about the world of sensations untamed by the human sensorium. What would an object-oriented aesthetics look like? It would have to entail an account of the ecology of qualities, as well as an account of how humans find themselves animated by those qualities. A review of the history of sensation, impression, qualia, and so forth would have to be undertaken. Harman includes a chapter in Guerrilla Metaphysics on Levinas’s idea of ‘qualities without substance’. Levinas is a great resource thinking the independence of qualities, as is Deleuze’s book on Bacon.

for those dropping in for the first time

Whenever Graham links to my blog, I get tons more traffic than usual. Tonight Levi–in the midst of a post that included a small commentary on Andy Clark’s Being Theremade some flattering comments about my current attempt to rework the concept of sensation into a new branch of Object-Oriented Ontology. Let me first thank Levi for his kindness and encouragement. Let me also welcome anyone who’s navigated their way to my blog for the first time.

You will find some bits of information about my project here, but, despite my intentions when starting this blog, most of my work is still being done the old fashion way: in print, articles, hard texts. Perhaps I will now find the time and desire to work out more of my position here, but it is also likely that interested parties will have to wait a bit for well-defined statements and arguments regarding my, if you will, ‘speculative aesthetics’.

In any event, thanks for checking me out. If I don’t post as prolifically as some of the others associated with OOO, perhaps dropping me a message will provoke me into doing so. You can reach me here: tomsparrow@gmail.com

Introducing Singularum (journal)

Bobby George (Kingston University) and I are launching a new journal, Singularum. Here’s the prospectus:

Singularum operates on the premise that every facet of life yields transformative aesthetic encounters. It thus provides an independent venue for theorizing, transmitting, and staging such events. Its strategic aim is to exhibit thinking born at the interface of theory, pedagogy, and aesthetic life.

Singularum is pluralist in its agenda and cultivates a hybrid taste which leaves room for nonstandard practices and approaches. Academic, literary, artistic, and experimental submissions will be considered for review. Each volume bears a polyvalent theme and is carefully reviewed by the editorial collective who curates the volume to ensure a consistent level of scholarship.

For now, the editorial team is composed of myself, Bobby, and Gordon Bearn (Lehigh University). In the future we may grow into a full editorial committee, including folks from many disciplines. Check out the first CFP here.

entertain me

It’s hard to feel okay about the job market. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. One of the things that hurts is when I apply for a tenure-track job and then find out that that job went to the visiting professor already at the institution. It’s extremely difficult to see such hires as anything but predetermined. If you’d like to entertain me with plausible scenarios wherein the (strong) VAP is not determined to win the TT position, I’d like to hear them so that I feel like my application actually did get a fair review and was not a complete waste of my time, energy, and hope.