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 ObjectsBryant 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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Couch/754868806 Robert Couch

    Very nice post, Adam. I’m anxious to hear more about Levi’s ontological realism, and how the implications differ from a more epistemological/correlationist approach….

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    Adam:

    Thanks again for these post. Looking forward to digging deeper with these issues.

    So you say, “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?” as a way of indicating the difference between a transcendental orientation and an OOO orientation.

    And you quote Bryant as saying, “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.”

    But both of these don’t seem to be to have broken radically which the transcendental perspective. It still seems that, in your words, we are asking about the world making sense to us, and in Bryant’s words, we are asking about the intelligibility of our scientific practice. This still sounds like the transcendental project seeking the conditions of intelligibility of the world, but now starting from the object side rather than the subject side (as phenomenology) has done for last 100 years.

    Instead of ask about the objects in relation to our scientific practice (some form of materialism/naturalism but not reductive [just a guess]), won’t OOO have to seek what “objects are as they are”?

    So I’m also interested in some for of ontological realism beyond correlationism and constructivism, but I’m still not sure how this is a game changer just yet.

    Thanks for your help.

  • Adam Miller

    Geoff, these are more great questions. Hopefully digging deeper in the coming posts will be helpful.

    For the moment, I think the key point is this: Bryant’s/Bhaskar’s inversion of the transcendental question is crucial because it doesn’t just reverse the direction of the transcendental horizon, it shifts the field on which the question operates.

    Rather than being an epistemological question about our access to objects, the question becomes an ontological question about what objects must be. Does that help?

  • Chris K.

    Just a few question, for anybody, really:

    1. It’s not clear to me why creation ex nihilo is equated with antirealism here. My impression is that most people who hold the doctrine aren’t Berkeleyan Idealists, but think that God created the universe as ontologically independent of himself. What more does an object need to be real than to be created as real (and really independent) by God?

    2. What is the benefit for Christians in thinking of objects as having a private life of their own? It seems prima facia problematic for Christians to try to think of creatures as if they weren’t created by God.

    2. What is the alternative to holding a “God first, objects second” position? If objects aren’t relativized in view of God, it seems as if God is relativized in view of objects. Is that a good price to pay? Or is there a less costly option?

    3. What is the conflict between primacy of Mind and evolution?

  • Chris K.

    I apologize for my failing to properly edit my previous post. :)

  • Adam Miller

    Chris, good questions.

    Why would we need to think of creatures as created ex nihilo in order to count them as created by God?

    Is it possible to seriously think God’s passibility without allowing God to be relativized in relation to his creations? I tend to agree with the Open Theism school that not foregrounding God’s passibility is itself too high a price to pay.

    • Chris K.

      Thanks, Adam, for your reply.

      I just don’t know what the alternative to creation ex nihilo would look like on this account. I presume panentheism wouldn’t work, because then things would be too bound up with God.

      I’m not closed off to Open Theism, but I have been reading a lot of the early Barth lately, which is probably driving my questions. I would probably want to maintain something like this: God chooses to relativize himself, chooses to be passable, but that choice must come from his side, rather than the object’s side. But it seems like you’re pushing for more autonomy for the object than that.

      • Adam Miller

        Thanks, Chris. I think the alternative to creation ex nihilo would look something like Genesis: God creates creatures out of less organized stuff that is already there.

        With respect to passibility, I wonder if it isn’t an essential feature of passibility that it not be chosen?

  • http://thedescribe.wordpress.com/ David CL Driedger

    Thanks for digging into this Adam. I followed Levi’s blog a few years back before this all ‘took off’. I guess I am still trying to decide how much ‘payoff’ there is in this work in terms of a political theology (or critique of it) or generally in terms of its extensions into identifying and addressing systems of power. I have no doubt the work itself is very interesting for many disciplines but I just don’t see the value the turning the project of phenomenology around. But I look forward to more posts in this regard.

    • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

      Yes, I also have wondered what the politics of speculative realism would be (politics always informs or is informed by ontology [via epistemology]). Many lament the absence of politics from SR, that it is a retreat from political questions (which is probably unfair this earl on in the movement).

      • Adam Miller

        These are good questions, too. Levi actually spends quite a bit of time toward the end of the book looking at the payoff of OOO with respect to political questions. It will probably take me a couple of weeks, though, to get that far. Since you (all) are interested, I’ll be sure to spend a little time with it. Then you can see what you think.

      • Levi

        At the risk of being shamelessly self-promoting I’ve written quite a bit about politics over at Larval Subjects. I’ve also recently published an article entitled “Of Parts and Politics” in Identities: A Journal for Politics, Culture, and Gender where I take the initial step of outlining my object-oriented political theory. With you I share the concern that politics has been so absent in SR and especially object-oriented philosophy.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Couch/754868806 Robert Couch

          Levi, I’m quite anxious to read your article, and I couldn’t find it at the journal. If you see this, would you mind emailing me a copy? (rcouchZZZ@gmail.com, without the ZZZ). Thanks!

        • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

          Levi,

          I’m sure I can speak for everyone in thanking you for jumping on. Hopefully you will join us often (and no worry about shameless self-promoting, ha).

          I threw this out to Adam before, but how do you seek the relationship between OOO’s “subjectless object” and Badiou’s “objectless subject.” It seems they should be related and if so, then the politics are already there in the non-relationship between the two. But if OOO is against, or at least not drawing on Badiou and his orientation, then what of politics and/or the subject.

          Thanks again.

          • Levi

            Ah, I think I see what you’re getting at. When I talk about an “subjectless object” what I’m targeting is the idea that an object is always a pole that is related to a subject, such that whenever we discuss objects we also subject related to that object. Under this model, objects don’t exist for themselves, but only exist as a pole in a relation. That’s what correlationism is. What I’m angling for is the ability to think an object for itself as independent.

            Here’s what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that subjects don’t exist. In my ontology there is only one category of things: substances/objects. Rocks are objects, stars are objects, spotted owls are objects, mantis shrimps are objects, and subjects are objects. In this regard, there’s nothing in my framework that prevents something like a Badiouian subject and the politics that accompanies that subject. Indeed, insofar as I hold that all objects must be assembled or built, Badiou’s conception of the subject and truth-procedures is especially resonant with my ontology.

  • matthew david segall

    This is where I believe Whitehead’s theology becomes interesting. His is not a mindless ontology, nor is it relativist or correlationist. The final real things are occasions of intelligent experience, or organisms. Even God is an occasion of intelligent experience, a creature of creativity. The key principle is Creatio Cooperationis, rather than ex nihilo. Catherine Keller has expressed this sort of Christology with poetic grace: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/12/22/god-and-the-chaosmos-thinking-with-catherine-keller/

    • Adam Miller

      Thanks, Matthew. Whitehead is a very important reference point for a lot of OOO thinking.

  • Kalev

    I know I’m late to join the conversation, but I did want to exculpate the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and push back on the genealogy of ontotheology and antirealist relativism, linking both with said doctrine. I am fully sympathetic to realism as such but am tortuously confused with why ex nihilo is said to be antagonistic toward it.

    Others have persuasively argued, I think, in archaeologizing (or linking) ontotheology to/with Duns Scotus, namely via his notion of the univocity of being (which can be contrasted to the Thomistic analogia entis). It is this notion which places God within the category of ‘Being’ (however infinitely higher God’s being is when compared with other beings) as opposed to ‘Being’ as such, which Aquinas held (as well as a distinction between existence and essence).

    Creation ex nihilo understood in its classic, realist sense does not begin with a knower, nor even an only true knower, for this ‘knower’, however “only one true” he/she/it may be, is still a knower among other, lesser knowers, a mind among lesser minds, and a being among lesser beings. I agree that theologies that begin as such inherently end in ontotheology, but this is because they originate and operate out of Scotus’ univocity of being, not because they adhere to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Thus, to push the ball on the other side of the fence, I would argue the complete opposite: Sundering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo already seems to allow for the univocity of being, and ontotheology is already creeping in.

    If anything, Open Theism (which seems to be advocated for in the comments) appears to succumb to the charge of ontotheology in that it originates out of an univocity of being. Whatever this uncreated “less organized stuff” is, it remains essentially uncreated, and as such, it still remains in the same category of existence as God, as does everything created through it. God is still portrayed as a being among beings, which certainly, as noted in a comment below, renders God passible (which I seem to be far less fond of than others), yet sunders the Thomistic analogia entis. One has already at this point started down the road of univocity and hence, ontotheology.

    • Levi

      This is a very peculiar comment. Ontotheology is any sort of metaphysics that treats one type of being as the ground and origin of all others, or that treats one term as transcendent to all others. Here are some variations: patriarchy, monarchy, Platonic forms, groups organized around a leader treated as infallible, theism, etc. Aquinas’s theology is a perfect example of such a theology. SCOTUS, in arguing that being means exactly the same thing when applied to god and creatures is a step away from ontotheology.

      At any rate, if I understand Miller’s point correctly about postmodernism, he is claiming the religious reactionaries such as fundamentalist creationists have used postmodern arguments to poke holes in science so as to defend their creationist young earth accounts of existence. They’ve been particularly sympathetic to anti-realist positions because if they can show we have no access to reality they can render themselves immune to the findings of the sciences.

      • Kalev

        But this is just exactly what Aquinas is not saying! God is not, for Aquinas, “one type of being” who is “the ground and origin of all others”. Rather, this is exactly what SCOTUS argues with his univocity of being (as even he still holds to creation ex nihilo). For Scotus, God is an infinitely transcendent being who creates all other beings, and this is precisely what separates his univocity of being from Aquinas’ analogy of being.

        I’m well aware of Heidegger’s genealogy of ontotheology here and that he argues Scotus is a step in the right direction; I simply disagree with it, finding more affinity with Radical Orthodoxy’s or even Marion’s geneaology of ontotheology. As an aside, I also find Catherine Pickstock’s re/construction of Plato interesting. For her, even Plato circumvents the charge of ontotheology, but this is beside the point.

        But I more than agree with Miller’s ultimate thrust concerning religious reactionaries and fundamentalist opponents of science and evolution. I might even go further and charge the entire Protestant enterprise as being in cahoots with nominalism, but I am, once again, digressing.

        • Levi

          In claiming that God differs in kind from all other beings, Aquinas is articulating the purest form of ontotheology. Scotus moves in exactly the opposite direction in holding that being is used in exactly the same sense for God and creatures. Any analogical conception of being is going to be ontotheological for this reason.

          • Kalev

            But nowhere does Aquinas claim that God “differs in kind” from all other beings, nor is this an implication of his analogia entis. The very fact that you use the diction of “other” in the above statement leads me to believe that you’re still portraying God within a category along with “other beings” which is exactly what the analogia entis undermines. God doesn’t “differ in kind” with any created thing, and this is precisely because God isn’t a thing, a person, or a being. In fact, Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius argue that one is not even permitted, strictly speaking, to say that God exists. Only with Scotus can the entire enterprise of arguing if God “differs in kind of being” or if being “is used in exactly the same sense for both” be conceived. And to return full circle, this is exactly why many have argued that Scotus inaugurates ontotheology.

          • Levi

            I don’t want to prolong this discussion as it’s off topic, but this is identical to saying God differs in kind:

            God doesn’t “differ in kind” with any created thing, and this is precisely because God isn’t a thing, a person, or a being.

            This is the claim that God is unlike all other beings such that the way we talk about other beings cannot apply to God (hence the acrobatics of negative theology). That’s a thesis of absolute transcendence and hence ontotheology.

          • http://profiles.google.com/maguyton Morgan Guyton

            Whatever you want to label the Thomist and pre-Thomist ontology, it is categorically different from the nominalist ontology that is the basis for modernity.

          • Kalev

            Not really. The analogia entis does permit one to speak of God (contra absolute transcendence) but only analogically, in a way which isn’t univocal (contra Scotus’ univocity of being). I feel like you are collapsing the analogia entis here by trying to pigeon-hole Aquinas in either camp . . . which is really the only way to make Aquinas (and the entirety of the historic Catholic tradition) fit into the category of ontotheology. You’re following Heidegger here, but I would argue he misunderstands Catholicism/Christianity at this very point.

            So, I would argue that my statement above isn’t identical to saying “God differs in kind”. To say the latter, one must already presuppose that God is some sort of a “kind”, and this is the very thing that Aquinas would deny.

            Our conversation has been good, and I think it is pertinent to the post above, albeit in a round-about way. It may perhaps be slightly off topic, but the whole topic is really, I think, dependent upon where one falls on these issues (varying genealogies).

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