In a recent post responding to Graham Harman’s Cosmos and History article on Thomas Metzinger Steven Shaviro provides a sympathetic reading of Harman’s critique of Metzinger’s more reductionist tendencies as well as certain conclusions Metzinger draws about the essence (or lack thereof) of the human self.
My knowledge of Metzinger’s work is anemic, but if what Harman and Shaviro say about Metzinger’s arguments against the existence of “self” is accurate I would tend to agree that a description of the layered, embedded and processual nature of human cognition and self-consciousness contributes more to explaining what the self actually is (e.g., a distributed network of embodied and effectual activity) than explaining it away.
What interested me most about Shaviro’s post, however, was his lucid revisiting of his long-standing arguments against the “withdrawal” of objects in favor of a more Whiteheadian processual and eventual metaphysical vision. It is a fun day for me when someone as versed and insightful as Steven Shaviro re-ignites a bit of flame under the old ‘process vs. object’ debate.
To be clear, I think the debate almost always approaches a true non-debate from the standpoint of narratives and frameworks flexible enough to accommodate both process and object-hood, or interrelatedness and irreducibility, without dogmatically adhering to either side of such fantasized dichotomies. Entities simultaneously have a unique efficacy and irreducible substantially while being eternally vulnerable and open to the flow of atoms, energy, matter and information. And to privilege either of these facts is to make an undeniably human distinction based almost entirely on temperament. Moving equilibriums, temporal assemblages, open systems, processual events or, to use a term from Ian Bogost, “unit operations” are everywhere apparent and apprehendable: not just within the empirical (and complexity) sciences but also in our immediate awareness where things impinge, extend and interpenetrate our direct experience and lived bodies.
Shaviro then goes on to provide what, in my view, amounts to a definitive rehashing of the most salient arguments against conflating ontological contact with epistemological opacity in accounting for causality generally and how objects interact specifically. Bottom-line in the case of humans: visceral, sensational experience is not identical to “knowledge”. Likewise, encounters between objects can be direct but partial when those encounters result in the meeting of affective forces despite the lack of totality in the mutually responsive and 'translative' nature of those contacts (especially in the case of objects without central nervous systems). Contact and experience need not be encompassing to be 'direct'.
Below are excerpts from Shaviro’s post which get right to the key points:
“[A]ll “things” are “really” processes. But for me, this doesn’t mean that things (or Harman’s objects) are thereby “undermined” by something else that is more essential than they are. For the fact that objects are “reifications” of processes doesn’t mean that they are illusory, or even that they aren’t basic. For the endurance of things, or their establishment of an “identity,” as a result of “reification” (which I think would better be called, in Whiteheadian parlance, social transmission and inheritance) is something that is perfectly real in and of itself. Endurance is an accomplishment, a singular and specific achievement in every case.I must emphasize here (in relation to Shaviro’s metaphor) that humans and other objects are never truly caught in a "prison" of translation, they are that prison. Affective entities are “prisons” (assemblages or apparatuses) situated in place, in the world, with 'doors' capable of being opened. As embodied matrices of capacity and relative depth, objects contact other objects or assemblages directly viz. all those inherent, onto-specific and characteristic sensitivities which define the limits of their constitutions. Yet, it is the relatively circumspect properties of specific sensitivities and capacity for response or adaptation which makes such contacts, exchanges, experiences or encounters partial. That is, interaction and causality are most often direct but partial. [cf. my post Conjuring the Gap - re: what I call ontological intimacy]
Moreover, this endurance is not something that happens (as Metzinger seems to claim, at least according to Harman) in our perceptual process, but actually in reality itself, in the very things which we are in process of perceiving…
We are always in direct contact with reality — since we are a part of this reality, rather than being separate from it (i.e. rather than being “withdrawn”). We are not caught in some Cartesian or Humean mental prison, familiar only with our own sense impressions (or familiar only with our own languages, in the 20th century version of this line of thought). The point, however, is that this contact cannot be reduced to, or captured as, “knowledge"… [O]ur contact with other entities is not restricted just to relations of knowledge. Harman is right to say that my concept of a tree, however full and nuanced, will never be equal to the tree itself. But this does not negate the fact that the tree has “touched” me, and I have “touched” it, non-cognitively and unconceptually…
‘Phenomenal’ contact need not, and cannot, be reduced to “epistemic” contact. Contact among entities is ontological, not epistemological — and this other dimension, which Metzinger at least senses as a problem, is omitted entirely from Harman’s account, when he says that, because we do not actually know other entities, or even ourselves, therefore all entities must ‘withdrawn’ from one another — and even from themselves.” [underlines added]
There are more riches in Shaviro’s post than I can hope to plunder in this post so I suggest those curious go read the entire offering: here.