Extra thought on liminal zones

The last post made me feel a little gross. I don’t like the idea of my under-informed criticisms devolving into useless, dismissive snark (which only ought to be saved for trolls and maybe Laruelle hardy har har). Now it’s true I don’t see a strong case in Levi Bryant’s recent polemic against object-oriented metaphysics, nor am I currently convinced by his defense of origami metaphysics from the charge of “undermining.” Nevertheless, Bryant – especially in the positive presentation of his own ideas – often awakens an itch in substance philosophies such as OOO: liminal zones. This is not to say I think OOO has no way to account for such fuzzy spaces, but they nag at every turn. (To see how Harman grapples with liminality, see Guerilla Metaphysics and his two most recent books, Dante’s Broken Hammer and Immaterialism.)

We might think of that classic thought experiment about the ship of Theseus, especially variations with two ships (a replica made from all of the original’s planks, or two ships exchanging their parts, or one ship transforming into another). Or we might think of the boundaries of a cloud, or conjoined twins, or a boy vanishing into the woods for a month who returns a man, or outsider art. Whatever image you prefer, I would guess that making sense of liminal zones motivates Bryant. For OOO, an account of the liminal seems only to appear at the end of a treacherous mountain path, but in Bryant’s view it is more easily grasped by a smooth stroll through origami metaphysics.

Almost there!

Notice that liminality always seems to involve time, represented in OOO by the tension between a sensual (intentional) object and sensual qualities. The liminal itch lies here. When a real object X becomes not-X, how do we make sense of the buffer zone between them? Specifically, does OOO not account for continua in reality, thus stranding the liminal in the sensual realm?

One way to address this concern is to imagine the inverted question. Does OOO allow for anything detached and discrete within just the sensual plane? This question forces us to confront our presuppositions about what it means to talk about the sensual or real apart from each other. It might seem at first that it is too easy to find individual cordoned-off units within the structure of intentionality, because the very nature of the sensual realm allows us to declare, “it looks like a bounded object to me!!!” But that’s not right. It cannot come down to arbitrary judgment, because doing so already imports a real object onto the scene: a perceiver, a judge. Indeed, any appearance in Harman’s philosophy, whether discrete or continuous, must involve a real object.

Now it turns out that any change in a real thing also involves a connection between real and sensual objects, an RO-SO attachment. Change thus happens within the unstable interior of another object (the RO-SO attachment as a whole, or RO[2]). Any real object has its own unstable interior attachments. While change may be sudden at the level of a real thing, it depends on both the temporality of sensual attachment (since it appears as a sudden breaking of the object-quality simulation, like a flash) and the cascade of attachments and their consequences at the lower levels of the thing’s parts. Liminality for OOO must refer to the appearance of these micro-changes as sensual qualities, the temporal prolongation of a larger event like an avalanche.

What I’m trying to get at is that for OOO, the sheer act of making contact necessitates a notion of levels, a cascade of real changes to the parts (of the parts…) of an object. For instance, a traumatic or even existence-ending transformation for some skin cells may register at another level of reality as a pressure event, and at yet another level as a handshake. Within the party as a whole, the handshake itself barely registers at all. But another such traumatic low-level event such as a punch in the face may indeed separate out from the banal course of the evening and impact the life of the party as a whole. The concept of “levels” here refers both to a chain of real-sensual contact and to the hierarchical part-whole relation of an object, each part itself being an object with parts…

In a fuzzy transformation from X to not-X, the liminal becoming of one into the other necessarily remains mysterious to a certain extent, but not strictly inaccessible. Overall the object-oriented perspective holds that (1) the zone of transformation as a reality in its own right cannot be directly grasped; (2) the boundaries of the object may either manifest as surface accidents (a handshake at the party), discrete stages (a face-punch), or existence-defining moments (a call to the police that ends the party); and (3) fuzzy boundaries involve the interaction between an object’s parts and their environment, not the interaction between the object itself and its environment.

One of the reasons Harman is so keen to criticize what he calls undermining is that it attempts to collapse the surprises of a thing’s parts into a single fuzzy plane, to draw multiple levels into one. For Harman, the road to an account of any object’s liminal boundaries ought to be a difficult tumble across a risky mountain ridge.


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