La Cruda Realidad

22Jun12

Cada generación debe entender que su situación es peor  y puede ser mejor que la anterior.

Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones

The world is teeming. Anything can happen.
John Cage, “Silence” 1

Autonomy means that although something is part of something else, or related to it in some way, it has its own “law” or “tendency” (Greek, nomos). In their book on life sciences, Medawar and Medawar state, “Organs and tissues…are composed of cells which…have a high measure of autonomy.”2 Autonomy also has ethical and political valences. De Grazia writes, “In Kant’s enormously influential moral philosophy, autonomy, or freedom from the causal determinism of nature, became prominent in justifying the human use of animals.”3 One of the oldest uses of autonomy in English is a description of the French civil war from the late sixteenth century: “Others of the…rebellion entred in counsell, whether they ought to admit the King vpon reasonable conditions, specially hauing their autonomy.”4

Life, and in particular human life, and in particular human politics, is well served by the usages of autonomy. What about the rest of reality, however? Should it be thought of, if it’s even considered real and mind-independent, as pure stuff for the manipulation or decorative tastes of truly autonomous beings? We tend to think of things such as paperweights and iPhones as mere tools of human design and human use. To use them is to cause them to exist as fully and properly as they can. But according to Martin Heidegger, when a tool such as a paperweight is used, it disappears, or withdraws (Entzug). We are preoccupied with copying the page that the paperweight is holding down. We are concerned with an essay deadline, and the paperweight simply disappears into this general project. If the paperweight slips, or if the iPhone freezes, we might notice it. All of a sudden it becomes vorhanden (present-at-hand) rather thanzuhanden (ready-to-hand).5

Yet Heidegger is unable to draw a meaningful distinction between what happens to a paperweight when it slips from the book I’m copying from and what happens to the paperweight when it presses on the still resilient pages of the thick paperback itself. Further still and related to this point, even when I am using the paperweight as part of some general task, I am not using the entirety of the paperweight as such. My project itself selects a thin slice of paperweight-being for the purposes of holding down a book. Even when it is zuhanden the paperweight is withdrawn. Graham Harman is the architect of this way of thinking.6 Harman discovered a gigantic coral reef of withdrawn entities beneath the Heideggerian submarine of Da-sein, which itself is operating at an ontological depth way below the choppy surface of philosophy, beset by the winds of epistemology, and infested with the sharks of materialism, idealism, empiricism and most of the other isms that have defined what is and what isn’t for the last several hundred years.

At a moment when the term ontology was left alone like a piece of well chewed old chewing gum that no one wants to have anything to do with, object-oriented ontology (OOO) has put it back on the table. The coral reef isn’t going anywhere and once you have discovered it, you can’t un-discover it. And it seems to be teeming with strange facts. The first fact is that the entities in the reef—we call them “objects” somewhat provocatively—constitute all there is: from doughnuts to dogfish to the Dog Star to Dobermans to Snoop Dogg. People, plastic clothes pegs, piranhas and particles are all objects. And they are all pretty much the same, at this depth. There is not much of a distinction between life and non-life (as there isn’t in contemporary life science). And there is not much of a distinction between intelligence and non-intelligence (as there is in contemporary artificial intelligence theory). A lot of these distinctions are made by humans, for humans (anthropocentrism). And the concept autonomy has come into play in policing such distinctions. In this essay I shall to try to liberate autonomy for the sake of nonhumans. I shall do so by parsing carefully the title, which is taken from Hakim Bey’s work The Temporary Autonomous Zone.8 First we shall explore the term autonomous. Then we shall explore what the full meaning of zone is. Finally, we shall investigate what temporary means. Each of these terms is of great value.

An object withdraws from access. This means that its very own parts can’t access it. Since an object’s parts can’t fully express the object, the object is not reducible to its parts. OOO is anti-reductionist. But OOO is also anti-holist. An object can’t be reduced to its “whole” either, “reduced upwards” as it were. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. So we have a strange irreductionist situation in which an object is reducible neither to its parts nor to its whole. A coral reef is made of coral, fish, seaweed, plankton and so on. But one of these things on its own doesn’t embody part of a reef. Yet the reef just is an assemblage of these particular parts. You can’t find a coral reef in a parking lot. In this way, the vibrant realness of a reef is kept safe both from its parts and from its whole. Moreover, the reef is safe from being mistaken for a parking lot. Objects can’t be reduced to tiny Lego bricks such as atoms that can be reused in other things. Nor can be reduced upwards into instantiations of a global process. A coral reef is an expression of the biosphere or of evolution, yes; but so is this sentence, and we ought to be able to distinguish between coral reefs and sentences in English.

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