The Democracy of Objects: Ontotheology!
Like the rapture, creation ex nihilo is an extra-biblical doctrine that a slew of people for a long time have enjoyed writing a lot of books about. I don’t have any objection per se to extra-biblical doctrines (Book of Mormon anyone?) but over the past couple hundred years this particular idea has come to seem like more trouble than it’s worth. It’s a manacle that chains Christian thinking to the ballast of ontotheology.
Creation ex nihilo is problematic because it’s a form of antirealist relativism. Everything begins with the knower and every known object exists only relative to this knower. This is ameliorated in the case of God where there is only one true knower, but creation ex nihilo preserves the basic form: first comes Mind, then objects follow. There is no such thing as a subjectless object. Objects have no (private) life of their own.
The antirealism of this implied primacy of Mind is at the root of our Christian failure to take evolution seriously.
In The Democracy of Objects, Bryant follows Meillassoux in describing this “mind first, objects later” approach as correlationism.
Philosophy, of whatever stripe, thus comes to be characterized by what Meillassoux has aptly named correlationism. As Meillassoux puts it, “by ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being.” (36)
In correlationism, all questions about objects get reduced to questions about our access to those objects. (For a nice example of this reduction of ontological questions about objects to epistemological questions of relative access, see nearly every objection ever made to Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the saturated phenomenon, Janicaud’s objections being exemplary.) “To know something, the argument runs, we must have access to that thing. Yet being beyond our access to it is precisely a form of being to which we have no access” (36). So much the worse, then, for objects. Post Kant, all attempted recuperations of ontology end up being creative versions of “transcendental anthropology” (36).
Structuralist and post-structuralist anti-humanisms are nuanced extensions of this position, but they bring us no closer to realism. They simply shift the sight of mediation/access from the mind of the individual knower to impersonal social structures like language. The limits of the correlation itself remain intact. We can say nothing about the private life of a subjectless object.
All who would enter the field of contemporary philosophy must pass through the transcendental gate.
Using Zizek’s definition of ontotheology, Bryant contends that all correlationism is ontotheological.
If, as Zizek contends, metaphysics, in the perjorative sense of ontotheology, consists in elevating a part to the ground of the whole, then the anthropocentrism of correlationism is metaphysical through and through despites its protestations to the contrary or its characterization of itself as a critique of metaphysics. Correlationism is ontotheology with the human in the place of God. (40)
Creation ex nihilo still cements a part into place as the ground of the whole, it just doesn’t swap humans in for God. It leaves God to fill those lonely, ontotheological shoes. There is still a transcendental gate of Mind, it’s just a gate that comes much earlier than in the humanist version of the story.
The strength of Bryant’s response in The Democracy of Objects to the correlationist dilemma derives from the fact that rather than scrapping the transcendental gate he argues that we should just walk through it backwards.
Adapting an argument from Roy Bhasker, Bryant finds ground for a realist ontology of subjectless objects in a reversal of the transcendental question:
Bhaskar’s defense of ontological realism begins with a very simple transcendental question: “… what must the world be like for science to be possible?” In asking what the world must be like for science to be possible, Bhaskar is asking a transcendental question and deploying a transcendental mode of argumentation. The question here is not, “how do we have access to the world?” or “how do we know the world?” but rather what must be presupposed about the nature of the world in order for our scientific practice to be possible. (42)
Don’t ask: what must Mind be like in order for the world to appear as it does? Ask: what must objects be like in order for our engagement with the world to make sense?
If we start with the first question, we’re already trapped. Why not just start with the second?
Already, with Bhaskar’s question, we sense that the air or atmosphere is very different. Bhaskar does not ask what the mind must be like for science to be possible, but rather what the world must be like for science to be possible. In framing the question of science this way, Bhaskar shifts the transcendental question from the domain of epistemology to the domain of ontology. (43)
By short-sheeting the transcendental question, Bryant opens the door to an object-oriented account of subjectless objects. Bryant’s answers to this question (what must objects be like in order for our engagement with the world to be possible?) are the key to filling out his original and productive brand of contemporary ontological realism. I’ll turn to this account next time.
But for the moment, I wonder if it isn’t time to start asking whether we, as Christians, can seriously entertain the idea that God did not create by conjuring an antirealist universe out of his own Mind. There are certainly biblical grounds for an alternative.
I would like to think we can.