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Levi Paul-Bryant on the term 'object-oriented ontology' and imprisoned language


For his blog Larval Subjects, Levi Paul-Bryant writes about our propensity to imprison language in citation of philosophers or over-determined systems of thought. “We think we’re using language, but really we get swept in language in ways that exceed our intentions. Language speaks us, rather than us speaking language.” Hear, hear. Sometimes I think that our over-reliance on citation and our willingness as youngsters to write in a prescribed, collective academic style is socially self-soothing–that because reading and writing philosophy, theory, art history, etc. is so inherently difficult that this emulation of a perceived academy guarantees belonging. And unfortunately, this tendency never really leaves us.

Also, it’s interesting to hear that OOO no longer goes by its original definition. This is also the case with other popular recent-ish neologisms “normcore” and “post-internet.”

See the original post on Larval Subjects.

This isn’t really here nor there, but over the years I’ve found the way certain words become the exclusive province of one philosopher incredibly irritating. Here you have a perfectly good and useful word that you need to do certain philosophical work, but because it’s come to be seen as the exclusive province of one thinker it’s more or less taken out of play unless you’re talking about that thinker. Take a word like “process”. What a wonderful word! To really talk about trees you need to talk about processes because trees are more like activities than brute clods that sit there. Trees are perpetually “treeing”. Likewise, Levi “levis” is continuously forming himself as a subject. I’d say the same is true of rocks as well, but that’s harder to see. So there you are talking about processes and someone violently objects: “but that’s not what Whitehead said! You’re getting him all wrong!” Of course, nowhere did you mention or reference Whitehead. Rather, it’s just that Whitehead has come to own the word “process”. It’s immediately assumed that if you’re speaking of processes you’re speaking of Whitehead. However, matters should really be quite different. Whitehead should be seen as presenting an account of process, just as philosophy has presented many accounts of experience, substance, mind, etc. One can take that up or not.

This is something I continuously encountered with the term “object-oriented ontology”. While I explicitly coined the term “object-oriented ontology” to distinguish positions committed to the thesis that being is composed of substances while differing from Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOO =/= OOP), any reference to OOO was immediately equated with Harman’s OOP. Wherever I went I got questions presupposing that I advocated Harman’s claims and had to patiently explain that they were addressing these questions to the wrong philosopher. I’m not sure why people got confused. Harman and I don’t look at all alike! For this reason I’ve increasingly tried to avoid the term “OOO” and to take care not to refer to “objects”. “OOO” is a term more like “rationalism” or “empiricism” or “idealism” or “materialism”, not the position of a single thinker.

These days I find myself ever increasingly trembling before language. Lacan liked to say that we’re “cuckold by language”. At least, that’s what he said in Seminar V, The Formations of the Unconscious. We think we’re using language, but really we get swept in language in ways that exceed our intentions. Language speaks us, rather than us speaking language. I’ve always been rather fond of meme theory for this reason, despite the fact that it’s nearly universally loathed. The core thesis of meme theory is that memes devise strategies to get themselves replicated or copied, that memes have rather furtive ends that are not necessarily the ends that we wish to put them to. We get infected by them. This is how it is with language. Language takes on a life of its own and speaks beyond us even as we are speaking and writing.

*Illustration via Tim R Walls