Object-Oriented Ontology and Philosophy of Technology

Referring to the “Copernican Revolution of Kant,” Graham Harman (2005) notes that “Like all events of shattering genius, the Kantian Revolution is so victorious that it is now taken for granted” and any attempt to subvert it, from within the academy at least, is futile (p. 75). This seems similar to the dominant paradigm described by Kuhn (1996), where even trying to think of a different question, one not supported and promoted as a puzzle to solve, becomes difficult. So, too, with the ideas of the posthuman where the human as the measure of all things, from which and to which all things must refer, dominates.

Katherine Hayles (1999) seeks an embodied posthuman rather than the disembodied posthuman imagined in cybernetic work. Hans Moravek’s notion of “downloading” one’s mind or consciousness into a computer implies that one’s “self” has nothing overly important to do with one’s body. Interestingly, the work of those believing that the mind or consciousness could be “downloaded” or placed into any other container could be taken as both a rejection of Cartesian dualism and an affirmation. Claiming that the mind/consciousness consists of information that can be recorded and translated into the 1s and 0s of computation points distinctly to an ontological physicalism. It reduces everything in the universe to the same kinds of “stuff” and means that anything and everything can be manipulated with sufficient knowledge, skill and resources.

In other words, the mind must be made of the same “stuff” as the body for such a translation to work. Or, we might even consider Moravek’s idea, as well as much work in artificial intelligence (AI), as somehow granting the dualism of Descartes but with a computational twist: the body exists, but the body does not confine me or define me. Whatever shape I wear, “I” wear it, and that “me” in there can exist in whatever shape or form I may like as long as the cognitively functioning “me” remains. Of course, more than a mere waft of physicalism pervades such ideas because that cognitively functioning “me” must be transported in some fashion or another.

For Hayles (1999), her

nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, [her] dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being., and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. (p. 5)

 

Rather than accuse Hayles of fetishizing the body, a charge that might hold up if it mattered (which it does not), another way to consider her evocative nightmare/dream scenario involves questioning why we privilege the human at all. I grant that “life is embedded in a material world of great complexity,” but I side with object-oriented ontologists like Graham Harman and Ian Bogost that the material world/universe involves many kinds of bodies/objects and many kinds of consciousness. Hayles (1999), as well as a host of feminist, postmodern and deconstructionist thinkers, offers a critique of the liberal humanist subject as the dominant paradigm, arguing that it violates humanity as a whole by singling out certain genders and races as supreme.

 

Ranging from feminist thinkers contending that the humanist subject has been imagined as a white European male, whose universalization serves “to suppress and disenfranchise women’s voices,” to postmodernist theorists like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari that link the humanist subject to capitalism (p. 4), the thrust of such critiques has been the egalitarian move that makes human “being” something to which no race, gender or sociopolitical group can claim exclusive access. For OOO, such a move begs an important question: why do cognitive rights and abilities stop at the human species, or even apply only to animals? Assuming life exists out in the universe beyond our planet, such a definition of a thinking thing might exclude them, even if they were capable of making a journey to our world. Further, what if such aliens had no “bodies” in the sense of which we conceive the term? Our fascination with embodiment would seem rather arbitrary to such “beings” (indeed, we might even lack a proper vocabulary to describe such creatures that need no body to survive/exist).

 

According to Harman (2005),

 

experience shows that it is often a mental image of what constitutes intellectual progress, rather than any inherently weighty arguments, that explains why the antiessentialist, antisubstance, philosophy-of-access viewpoint enjoys such apparently unshakable prestige in continental philosophy today. (p. 81, emphasis in original)

 

Pointing to the primacy of embodiment as the locus of cognition seems strangely flawed as yet another continuation of the humanist project. Random access memory works as a metaphor for the thinking human mind partly because it evokes an image, a perspective in which humans can understand themselves. To claim such an image as the only possible one does serve traditional humanist ends in that it holds humans as superior to all other being/objects. The human remains the measure of all things, and as no other animal or nonhuman has sent in any manuscripts to academic journals or global media claiming otherwise, we humans feel safe in just such an assumption. The speculative turn that Harman (2005) attempts to reclaim from Whitehead permits Harman, and other object-oriented ontologists/speculative realists like Ian Bogost (2012) to make forays into wondering about what it is like to be a “thing.” I find the mental image these speculative realists invoke equally compelling to that of the embodied camp. As my advisor frequently reminds me, we all choose what we want to privilege, what we wish to hold inviolable. To a certain extent, we cannot move beyond such dogma. As Harman (2005) compellingly claims:

Beginners in any field generally lack such paradigms, which is why they often strike us as lost or confused, and also why they are often more difficult opponents in debate than trained experts, since experience provides us with a rapid but predictable organizing mechanism for what we learn. . . . Hollow dogma can be found in any party at any time, and is equally paralyzing no matter where it occurs. (p. 80)

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