Saturday, July 07, 2012

Obiectum (belated SMs2 closing remarks)

I see an elision or lacuna in these proceedings, possibly significant: the lack of discussion, in a conference rather inspired to speculate objects in the mirror of medieval works, of the medieval origins of the concept and word object. Is this an oversight, a structural failure of vision to bump into what it ought to see? Or is it a purer kind of non-event, the causeless not-happening of something? Sometimes I get the feeling that what does not happen is inexplicably powerful, an abyssically negative spontaneity ruling and seducing all existent things from its universal invisible domain. The issue might provide an interesting playground for thinking the objecthood of the inexistent, of what is not there. This is a good limit-problem for any philosophy wanting to relate to reality as constituted by how things are. It is also a question that the medieval, as a zone where a saint recommends preaching to non-existent creatures, philosophers theorize divine alteration of the past, and mystics see nonbeing as an excess of being, is already answering.      
But I prefer not to go there, wishing that I could instead move (or realize that I am only ever moving) like the guild navigator in David Lynch’s Dune: “I did not say this. I am not here.” Instead I will close the event by trying to open it into some avenues of understanding along which the medieval origination of object might lead the way. To find the start of these avenues, imagine a generic medieval intellectual, that is, someone infused with ‘the love of learning and the desire for God’, encountering contemporary object orientedness. First the bad news: there is no absolute knowledge, no arriving at the omnipresent center. Then the good news: we really have figured out what everything is: objects. Bad news: objects incommensurably withdraw, remain irreducible to relation, are never knowable in themselves, so no theosis, henosis, subject-object union, incarnation, soul-body suppositum, eternal individuals, or anything like that. Good news: it is because of the above that anything is happening at all . . . and so forth. Maybe the fellow would find relief, like a good bloodletting, in the demotion of his desire from the desire to be everything to a desire to be with things. Perhaps he would despair. Perhaps he would think he was in paradise, intoxicated with the idea that these objects are God. Or perhaps he would object, discovering new truth through his own understanding of the word object.[1]

Obiectum is a substantive meaning the object of a power. From ob-jacere (to throw something before, to make it appear, present), the word has a verbal meaning:[2] a casting before, a putting before, a lying before, a being interposed and thus what presents itself to movement or perception, what gets in the way.
            Importantly, the sense of objection (argument, accusation, charges) is developed in advance of the philosophical sense of object: obiectum (objection): 1125-1343; obiectum (object): 1286-1444.
Obiectum is both what we go after and what strikes us.  Cf. the problem of distinguishing facts and judgments. Likewise, obiectum indicates objects of both apprehensive and motive powers (passive or active).
“Objects are things/appearances thrown over against (ob-jecta) subjects  who are thrown under (sub-jecta) the field of manifestness.”[3]
The primary philosophical sense of obiectum is the object of a power, typically a human power. In that sense it is a term of human-world correlation and would fall under the same Heideggerian critique of object that GH mentioned in his lecture. The medieval obiectum in this sense is exactly not the sense of object pursued by object-oriented philosophy, which seeks to redefine things or entities as objects. However, the semantic firstness of obiectum as dialectial objection or argument should alert us to suspicion of such a ‘purified’ notion of object, precisely because it suggests an occluded or unspeakable relation between the philosophical concept of object and the intellectuo-appetitive practice of raising arguments and throwing down objections. Is object-oriented philosophy’s ‘hypostasizing’ of the object a correlate of its will for real philosophical argument, for objective jousting over reality itself?
GH’s call for “universal philosophical dialogue” on the model of premodern intellectual smack-downs, “a more wild and fruitful form of intellectual combat of a kind that no longer exists,” does seem to confirm this medieval semantic diagnosis. He writes, “The Middle Ages are widely remembered as a period of rampant intolerance in intellectual history. Minute subtleties of theological dogma served as ground for harassment and excommunication . . . Although intellectual persecution is usually the result of stupid authoritarian behavior, it nonetheless suggests an atmosphere in which the consequences of ideas are taken seriously . . . I would like to describe a sense in which all of these persecutors are closer to the ideal model of universal dialogue than we in the tolerant and apathetic West.”[4] That a fantasy and/or event of contiguity between objection and object is at work in object-oriented philosophy is suggested more specifically in GH’s recommendation for the production of such an atmosphere of serious consequences, in which different philosophical positions would be encouraged to hit each other like free objects via the mysterious occasionalist mediation of “a powerful blind-reviewing committee”: “the dominance of insular specialists would come to an end, and universal philosophical dialogue would prosper at the hands of those willing to risk a staged combat between ideas of different philosophers or altogether different traditions. The measuring stick in such combat can only be reality itself . . . Although I have no wish to be burned at the stake, I would also prefer not to work in a profession in which there is was never any real combat over fundamental principles.”[5] The desire here is for a testing and proving of thought on the universal battlefield of objectal relation, not because that would constitute real discourse in the sense of authentic communication, but precisely because real communication is impossible, because the only way things ever ‘talk’ is by touching and hitting each other: “When a meteorite strikes the moon, it hardly matters that these objects are not ‘conscious’ of one another. They have to appear to one another in the sense that they affect one another. And they never appear to one another in the totality of their being, but only in a limited, perspectival way.”[6] Combat is in this sense an object-oriented criterion of philosophical truth, precisely because it can never effect the cores of things, because violence does not alter their autonomous essences. In other words, the prospect of being burned at the stake is for GH a fit, flirted-with image of a world of real intellectual stakes because, like cotton, he is an object that would not be exhausted by burning: “When fire burns cotton, it does not matter whether the fire is ‘conscious’ of the cotton in some primitive panpsychist manner; all that matters is that the fire never makes contact with the cotton as a whole, but only with its flammability. The rich reality of cotton-being is never drained dry by the fire, any more than by human theories of cotton or human practical use of it. There is a certain unreachable autonomy and dignity in the things.”[7] Among the first question this legible correlation between the two senses of object—“Some might object that inanimate objects . . .”[8]—raises is the question of the appetite or motive for combat, the question of the originary semantic element that is elided in object(ion)-oriented thinking. What is the power that seizes object-oriented philosophy as its object?
Rather than pursuing that question, I will simply try to furnish some relevant facts and thoughts, materials through which we might converse with OOO’s imaginary medieval interlocutor, through which the medieval genesis of object may be meaningful in a philosophical ‘third zone’ or ‘great outdoors’ beyond the subject-object correlate.[9] On this note it is significant that GH’s atheistic or secular occasionalism does not and perhaps cannot dispense with negatively deploying the name of God, that it seems to fall under discursive necessity for a kind of apophasis, of defining the absolute occasional power as a not-God or immanent infinite absence. Contrarily, thinking the speculative medieval object, the object as both autonomously real and the correlate of human powers, may lead toward the (always) new great indoors, a third universal conditioned neither by God nor not-God, an outdoors that one not only points to from inside, but actually lives in.

The relation between object and appetite is clear from the Latin-to-Greek context where obiectum translates ‘that on which power depends’, ‘for which there is desire’, ‘to which a power is related’, Aristotle’s to antikeimenon/ta antikeimena (that which lies over against). Object is soul food, as represented by Aristotle’s discussion of nutritive powers in the De Anima. It is what keeps a body going and is thus intimate to life as animation, movement. Here object represents a kind of close/distant opposite, as the stomach is alterative of food. Dewan shows that obiectum is not the product of simple translation, that the commentary tradition creates the concept out of Aristotle and does not take it from him as such.
The appetitive sense of object may be compared to OOO predilection for models of burrowing and tunneling, the worm being the perfect and traditional figure for appetitive animation. “We do not step beyond anything, but are more like moles tunneling through wind, water, and ideas . . . We do not transcend the world, but only descend or burrow towards its numberless underground cavities.”[10]

Dewan analyzes the word in the context of the De Anima of Robert Grosseteste, which concerns how the soul, like the eye, is affected where it is not. Similarly, the obstacular nature of object is central to Augustine’s discussion of the extromissive theory of vision in De quantitate animae. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (5.5) similarly concerns the indeterminate substantiveness of obiecta as things being thrown up against powers. Chaucer’s translation makes this especially clear, where he uses the verbal “thinges objecte from withoute-forth” to translate obiecta extrinsecus. Boethius is a possible source for the application of the word obiectum to the Aristotelian context.
But Augustine also uses corpus obiectum as corporeal object of sense, not in sense of object of a power but more purely in the sense of obstaculum, what stands in the way. Here we should consider the fascinating paradox of how the objects of powers/appetites also stand in the way in a more essential sense, how precisely what satisfies or fulfills a desire is also what thwarts and hinders its fulfillment. Obstaculum is what rays of light issuing from the eye hit up against. The sensed is the impassible, which also means that what is seen is exactly what is not. For Thierry of Chartres, only earth and water are truly visible, not fire or air. This was applied to the question of the invisibility of God: God cannot be seen because he lacks obstacularity. What is everywhere hinders nothing. The model is applied to the operation of intellectual powers and also concerns the effect or lack of effect of a power on its object when it ‘offends’ or strikes it (offendere)—another space of conceivable correlation between attack and understanding. Cf. deconstruction and GH’s interest in understanding something as intellectually ‘ruining’ it. Boethius, for example, address how the freedom of a being is not disturbed by its being an object of divine knowledge. God’s invisibility and omniscience are two sides of the same reality.   
The obstacularity of object reveals the interplay between the movement of the soul to things and the movement of things into the soul. Here we must consider the equation or identity of what strikes you and what you hit up against. Note how humans ignorantly love to strike back at what they have, under their own power, first bumped into.

As noted above, the use of obiectum to mean object (of a power) develops after the sense of objection and remains contemporary with it. Is there a substantive connection? Perhaps a connection is visible in use of object in Middle English to mean objection, in that there is a logical continuity between tangibility and objection, the sense is which things are objections, arguments. Nothing is simply there but is also pressing itself into the world, talking to it and continually imposing itself on other things in one way or another. Things are objects, arguments. An entity is something that says, what about me? Biosemiotics investigates this domain.
Continuity between the nominal and verbal senses of obiectum, and thus indeterminacy regarding the substantiality of objects, is communicated by object as adjective in Middle English, as in the phrase ‘object thing’. Here we should consider the question in relation to the good as the will’s object and truth as the intellect’s. That is, how shall we go about sorting out the interplay between telos and obstacle with respect to argumentation? Is not argumentation, as a practice of raising objections, often a form of futile telos or confusion of end and obstacle? Argumentation at once aims toward the good, the true and prevents passage to them. Argument is an art of laying down an object in both senses before your interlocutor, both something they should stumble upon, hit up against, and thus be prevented from arriving at their own object, and something that should become their object in the sense of telos or aim, their new truth.[11]
Dewan considers the double meaning of obiectum (objection and object) to be insignificant, a point of possible linguistic confusion, but not an inherently significant polysemy. He writes: “we might ask what attraction was to be found in the word ‘obiectum.’ There was one obvious drawback. Its equivocal double was already in use to mean an objection. Still, this is a much less grave difficulty than with the other words mentioned above [oppositum, finis, motivum]. The reason is that in the case of ‘obiectum,’ the double or equivocal pertains to the discussion of discourse itself, rather than ‘obiectum’ being a word to signify an aspect of things in their own intrinsic entity. In fact, one is rarely in doubt as to which of two ‘obiectum’ equivocals one is dealing with” (442).
On the other hand, one can see that this is precisely the blindly constitutive doubt of philosophy itself, which determines its objects on all levels via the decision to philosophize, to treat the world as there for philosophy in the first place. My suspicion is that the philosophical word-concept of object is the product of a climate of intellectual objection and appetitive love of argument traced in the temporal gap between the senses of the word (1125-1286), which is precisely the period marked by reception and scholastic institutionalization of Aristotle, roughly, from Abelard’s Sic et Non (1120) to the Condemnation of 1277 at the University of Paris. In other words, object is essentially a medieval document of philosophy’s fundamental aberration, as recognized by Nietzsche: “The aberration of philosophy is that, instead of seeing in logic and the categories of reason means toward the adjustment of the world for utilitarian ends (basically, toward an expedient falsification), one believed one possessed in them the criterion of truth and reality. . . . This is the greatest error that has ever been committed, the essential fatality of error on earth: one believed one possessed a criterion of reality in the forms of reason—while in fact one possessed them in order to become master of reality, in order to misunderstand reality in a shrewd manner.”[12]
“All of the Bilateria are worms, including men (and in this, medieval theology is not mistaken). That is, they have a longitudinal axis, a ‘monumental axis’, a right side and a left side. This differentiates them from the Radiata, in which several rays radiate from a centre. For us Bilateria the world is bilaterally symmetrical: there either ‘is’ or ‘is not, and the third is excluded. The dialectic of the worm.”[13]
“Things are not outside us, in measurable external space, like neutral objects (ob-jecta) of use and exchange; rather, they open to us [sono esse stesse che ci aprono] the original place solely from which the experience of measurable external space becomes possible. They are therefore [the very beings, esse stesse] held and comprehended from the outset in the topos outopos (placeless place, no-place place) in which our experience of being-in-the-world is situated. The question 'where is the thing?' is inseparable from the question 'where is the human?' Like the fetish, like the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly [improvvisamente} facing these apparently so simple unknowns: the human, the thing.”[14]

[1] The essential study, on which I rely on and freely borrow from  throughout these remarks, is Lawrence Dewan’s “’Obiectum’: Note on the Invention of a Word,” chapter 26 of Wisdom, Law, and Virtue: Essays in Thomistic Ethics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).
[2] The verb-noun relation was also addressed earlier in this symposium.
[3] Rober E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999), 3.
[4] Graham Harman, “Some Preconditions of Universal Philosophical Dialogue,” Dialogue and Universalism 1-2 (2005): 165-6.
[5] Harman, “Some Preconditions,” 179.
[6] Harman, “Some Preconditions,” 172.
[7] Graham Harman, “Asymmetrical Causation,” Parallax 16 (2010): 100.
[8] Harman, “Some Preconditions,” 171.
[9] The logic of ‘the third’ was a de facto theme of the symposium.
[10] Graham Harman, “Vicarious Causation,” Collapse II: Speculative Realism (2007): 193. For a critique of such subjective enclosure, see Nicola Masciandaro, “Mysticism or Mysticification?: Against Subject-Creationism,” English Language Notes 50 (2012): 255-60.
[11] The symposium discussion about telos vs. becoming is relevant here.
[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 315.
[13] VilĂ©m Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes (New York: Atropos Press, 2011), 25.  
[14] Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 59.

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