on the reality of language

Tim Morton gave a talk yesterday at UB. It's up on his blog, so I will spare you my re-hash of it. I will say I find his argument about the role of agriculture in climate change provocative, as well as his adoption of the Oedipal detective as a central trope. The investigator who discovers he is the culprit fits in well, I would imagine, with his other claims about the contradictory nature of objects and our general hypocritical state. 

At dinner, there was some conversation about nature and species. I believe I understand (and agree) with Tim's claims here. As I would put it, conceptually, nature and species make ontological claims that are false. That is, species makes certain claims about the ontological status of plants and animals, but we do not exist in that way. In a way that is analogous for me with how Latour argues that modernity never existed. Now here is what is curious for me as a rhetorician. The word "nature" exists. You just saw it, right?  The object to which the word refers does not exist in the way "nature" claims it to exist. I can look out from the porch of my family's Adirondack vacation home and see a mountain, trees, a lake, etc. Those objects are there. If I say "It's nice to be out in nature," I am referring to real objects, but in Morton's argument I am making an ontological claim about those objects that is not true: the trees exist but nature doesn't. 

At this point, I need to make a distinction between the word "nature" and the thought that is connected to my hypothetical utterance. Thinking is an interesting problem in OOO, and it appears to be one of the places where there are differences among the major thinkers (if you can excuse the pun). In Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman writes "All consciousness is allure, but not all allure is consciousness… Allure is the presence of objects to each other in absent form" (245-46). Harman's position seems to shift slightly later. In Prince of Networks he specifically notes warming toward the notion of panpsychism that he firmly rejects in his earlier work. However he does set limits on psychism: "all real objects are capable of psyche, insofar as all are capable of relation; for real objects have psyche not insofar as they exist, but only insofar as they relate" (213).

Now this is less a claim than a question I have (specifically for Harman, so maybe I'll ask it when he's here later this semester but feel free to chime in anyone). My understanding of Harman's position is the following. When one object encounters another, it produces a sensual object. This production does not necessarily involve allure: allure is a special kind of relation. This would suggest sensing without consciousness, and I don't have a problem with that. It also suggests that any consciousness is involved with real objects. This becomes even more clear in The Quadruple Object, specifically the section on the interiors of objects (around 115-117), where Harman argues that his perception of a tree creates a new object. The perception is an object that is separate from him and the tree, and the sensual object he experiences occurs on the interior of that new object. I'm not sure where Morton comes down on this particular element of Harman.  It works well for me as it fits with a conception of distributed cognition that I find quite convincing. Namely, thoughts cannot be interior to the thinking object. This is how allure functions as well in turning sensual objects into real ones. 

Let me know if I've got that correct, but that's my sense of Harman's position. 

Getting back to my staring off from my Adirondack porch. My perception creates a new object. It's a thought. As Harman says, "While it is true that perceptions are transient, not purely physical, and also made up of rather heterogeneous pieces, these points disqualify them as objects only for those who accept needless traditional views of what an object is" (The Quadruple Object, 117). I call my perception "nature." That is a mistake inasmuch as the concept of nature makes false ontological claims. Let's say in this hypothetical case that I am not familiar with Morton's argument. So I am not lying. That is, I believe that I am in nature. You could say that I was delusional but that doesn't seem quite right to me. It would be more accurate, maybe, to say that I was enmeshed in discourse/ideology in a Foucauldian or Althusserian sense. However I think we can just stay within OOO here.

I perceive this scene of trees, a mountain, and a lake. This perception is a object of which I am a part. And here I'm not sure what others would say, but for me, the subsequent composing of the sentence "It's nice to be out in nature" is separate from the perception-object. After all I can have this perception without saying this and even without thinking that particular sentence. Here "nature" no doubt is embedded in correlation. Nevertheless, this utterance would see to fit Harman's description of an object as well as my perception does. As such, these are all real objects. So the trees, mountain, and lake withdraw from me and one another. My perception withdraws from me. This sentence and the word "nature" withdraws from my perception, from me, from the trees, etc.  But in that formulation the word nature is real. The ontological claims it makes are false, but I don't see how that would affect its status as a real object. 

So "nature" is real, not in the sense that what it conceives is real but in the sense that it is a word and words are real objects. This may be a point of substantive disagreement between me and the some of the central OOO folks, but the claim that words are real objects (and hence nonhuman) is fairly crucial to my project. That is language is nonhuman. One might object that language was created by humans (I wouldn't agree with the intentionality that claim suggests) but even if I did it wouldn't matter. Hairbrushes are made by humans, and they are nonhuman objects as well. If we follow back to Harman's claims about allure, consciousness, and psyche, then we can see how, for humans, the allure of the nonhuman objects of language is productive of consciousness. We might also begin to see how, (pre)historically, humans without symbolic behavior would have had rhetorical relations via allure. Indeed allure might not even be necessary for Harman, if I read that passage from Prince of Networks which only that relation is necessary for psyche.

Although I am mostly interested in starting out from a minimal rhetorical position sans symbolic action, the discussion of symbolic action might be more relevant to those with more conventionally political concerns. That is, if we understand words as nonhuman objects, which can become part of texts, which are also nonhuman objects, then one has a point of connection between the legacy practices of the humanities and those methods suggested by various speculative realisms.

I would be interested in hearing an argument from an OOO or related position that didn’t view words as real and nonhuman. My first concern that making such an argument would establish language as some special psychic state which would seem to turn back more to a correlationist position. Instead it would seem more likely that one would argue, as I have, that words are just more objects, no more or less special than other objects from a flat, ontological perspective. It is likely the case that words hold very little allure for most objects, but for people, words can be very alluring and powerful. So powerful in fact that we’ve almost managed to imagine that the only relations with have in the world are with word-objects. This would seem to be what SR confronts, at least in part.