Object-oriented Ontology and the Non-dual in Poetry
Phenomenology, namely the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, was being developed at the same time as the writings of both the symbolists and the early objectivists (then known as the imagists), and while perhaps not directly influential, both existed at least within the same intellectual sphere and larger cultural climate that was fomenting. Sort of like the hyperobjects we are hitherto about to discuss.
Hyperobjects have the unique characteristic of being both object and event. They are objects in that they have a name and a description, and events in that they take place over a period of time (undetermined). They are aperiodic meaning that they may take place here but not there, now, but not then. Neither greater nor less than time or space, therefore equivalent only with place.
Hyperobjects are generally simpler and more abstract than their constituent parts, which makes them disappear, or withdraw behind the things and ideas they are associated with. In Timothy Morton’s words, they ‘subscend’ beneath the events and things that surround them. Their ontological size as a thing, a city in this case, is smaller than its larger footprint; the biomass (flora and fauna), consumer goods that get shipped in, the waste that goes out and of the events that have happened there over the course of time, or history. As ideas however, they encompass all of the above with room to spare, which is taken up by the unspoken and perhaps unspeakable noumena.
We interact with hyperobjects all the time, continuously. They are the supersets of the smaller subsets identified by individual objects. Some examples of hyperobjects include evolution, and individual evolutionary events, consciousness, and the individuated units of consciousness (ourselves) and the universe itself, within which all other objects exist. Hyperobjects, therefore are a synthesis of their parts into a third, separate thing that combines them all, albeit in a compressed state.
Both object-oriented ontology (henceforth referred to as ‘triple-O’) and the objectivist poets refer to objects (including us humans) as occasions of existence, united in a common world of intersubjective objects (and inter-objective when they are compared to each other) from which our hermeneutics is derived.
The objects familiar to us are so only because we have created them, while the ones we didn’t create, that existed before us (animals, trees, plants, elements, atoms), contain what the speculative realists and proponents of object-oriented ontology call, an excess or surplus potential; what we have already called noumena, which steadily withdraw from our interrogations. They are to consciousness, what consciousness is to the body, however they are still contained within consciousness. They are just aspects of consciousness that we are unable to report or comment on.
Which is why we are constantly on the look-out for an object to project our consciousness onto. We need a place to take umbrage from this pure potential. However, when we do so, we become lazy and forget that we are only resting in this world of objects, becoming, in the process, so accustomed to them, that we assume they are all that exists. But apart from those we have provided ourselves with (the human-altered world) there is very little that we can explain. We forget that we are the authors of this apparent confusion, and the only way to simplify it, is to reduce objects to a more holistic state where all objects are part of the same object. Or at least, where all objects are on the same ontological level. Thoughts and ideas being equivalent to words and names, which in turn are as real as the objects they signify.
In Place and Experience, Jeff Malpas discusses how subjects and objects are constituted by one another. One of the first things that happened in our universe was that it became finite. Shifting from an undifferentiated, unobserved state to a finite, open and contingent one. This could have been caused by anything, the first particle or the first atomic nucleus. Which satisfies the primitive requirements of a subject; something to impact and be impacted by the previously undifferentiated oneness. “The very possibility of being a creature that can have thoughts and that can have experience of a world, is dependent on being a creature that has the capacity to act in relation to objects within the world” (Malpas 1999:157). When we are unable to relate to objects and other subjects, or when there are no objects to relate to, we return to that undifferentiated consciousness that we emerged from, pure subjectivity, aware of nothing but awareness, and maybe not even that.
But again, it may be unnecessary to even try to figure out what objects are, since they are thoughts in the minds of humans, just as humans are thoughts in the mind of consciousness. For consciousness there are no objects. There are objects only from the perspective of subjects. Thus, anything we have to say about objects (man-made, human-altered) are things we have to say about ourselves. Whereas, the natural class of objects, those which are not created by humans; rocks, trees, lakes, mountains, are of the same level of potentiality that a broken hammer has, or the existence of otherwise unconscious objects such as air and the ground we are sitting/ standing/ walking on.
The air and the ground are beyond our descriptions, and often our awareness of them (the absolute knowable) while the broken objects are released from the descriptions imposed by humans to take up existence in the gap between natural and man-made, or natural and human-altered landscapes, or the individual and the whole, the one and the many, the visible and invisible, the whole and its parts. The broken object is freed from its ‘designated’ use to become anything at all, i.e. ‘back to the things themselves’; i.e. wood, metal and certain geometrical shapes and forms.
Without houses, composed of complexes of other natural objects there would be no need for hammers, and without us there would be no questions, no contradictions, just a timeless (and perhaps even space-less) continuum of events, perhaps not even events, because as we have just said, events are distinctions in time.
Humans occupy that pivotal place between culture and nature, or historical and natural. Where everything that is contemporary (the last 200,000 years or so) is human, and everything that existed before (and after) is natural. Triple-O goes even farther, so rather than describing objects in anthropocentric language, it stops at that critical threshold between human-altered and natural, where the numinous withdraws and observes (feels, senses, intends, constitutes) them from a kind of middle distance. So, we don’t have to chase them at the speed of light; in fact we don’t have to move at all, they are all around us. This goes double for place (and by extension, time), so that we are never out of it, and that this might be as close as we get to objects, the things themselves, before they resolve back into the things of this world, (the human-altered world) and the things within language.
Where the objectivists stop is in identifying all things — including conscious beings — as objects. It is just another step to make them all the same object, or at least parts of the same object. That experienced and experiencer are the same thing. Because they are both in consciousness. There is no way to experience them apart from consciousness; therefore they are one.
This is non-duality. The last step of the not-two dialectic. The objectivists however, do not proclaim themselves to be non-dualists or idealists in the philosophical sense, because to take such a position would detract from the impact of their poetry. Even though we never experience anything apart from awareness, it is still too much of a reduction. To state this would be to state everything, leaving nothing to say. No poetry, nothing left to ponder. Therefore, the poet can never do this, even if he/ she believes it, because they are compelled to keep writing, describing, guessing and being uncertain. Their purpose is to communicate information to the reader, to describe their impressions of the phenomenological world, not to convince them that the world doesn’t exist.
If all poets were like Rumi, we wouldn’t have the variety of written experience that is now available. The imperfect as well as the near perfect. It is unclear if Rumi was even a poet at all. Properly speaking he was more of a philosopher, mystic or perhaps something else.
Poets on the other hand, are poets first and theorists/ mystics second. This ontological intersection of person as thing, person as observer is where the mystic and artist/ scientist diverge. The mystic going inwards towards perception and idealism; the artist/ scientist going outward in the direction of the thing, to describe it as distinct from himself and other things — dualism.
All poets are subjective, even the objectivists, where they get it right is in their understanding that the perception of an object (the phenomena) is only a reification, not the thing itself. Description is the limit of the observer’s ability to explain what it is perceiving, or the limitations of the mind through which it is known. The observer cannot describe that which it is a part, only that it is a part.
In ‘The Transparency of Things’ Rupert Spira, writer and speaker on non-duality, says, “The mind is an object. It does not know anything. It is itself known by Consciousness. Consciousness cannot be known by the mind” (Spira 2008:22). Further clarifying this point in ‘The Nature of Consciousness’, “The only absolutely true knowledge is consciousness’ knowing of its own being, which shines in the mind as the knowledge ‘I am’ or the feeling of being. All other knowledge requires consciousness to assume the form of a finite mind in order to be known” (Spira 2017:99).
Artists, like mystics, reach as much inward as they do outward, reflecting on their experience both objectively and subjectively, but can’t prove what they feel and see, so the experience remains subjective.
As far as the poet may think he/ she is getting back to the thing itself; what Stevens referred to in An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, as ‘the poem of pure reality’ they are still closer to the mystic’s position than the scientist’s.
The poem of pure reality, untouched
By trope or deviation, straight to the word.
Straight to the transfixing object, to the object
As the exactest point at which it is itself,
Transfixing by being purely what it is,
A view of New Haven, say, through the certain eye,
The eye made clear of uncertainty, with the sight
Of simple seeing, without reflection. We seek
Nothing beyond reality…’ (Stevens 1954:465–488).
Both arrive at the same conclusion. The mystic going the short way, bypassing space and time by pulling their destination toward them, i.e. staying still, while the scientist moves toward it, using all that time and energy only to reach yet another place similar to the one they left.
Where the objectivists are largely hermeneutic and ontological in their approach, the symbolists are transcendental, refraining from naming the thing, because by naming it, the symbol becomes dead; ‘to name is to destroy. To suggest is to create,’ or in the words of Rene Descartes; ‘to define is to limit’.
In Researching Lived Experience, Max Van Manen compares phenomenology to poetry,
“As in poetry, it is inappropriate to ask for a conclusion or a summary of a phenomenological study. To summarize a poem in order to present the result would destroy the result because the poem is itself the result” (Van Manen 1990:13). This is like the example above of ‘An Ordinary Evening…’ where Stevens never describes New Haven, but only analyzes what the simple view of New Haven might be. In this way, Stevens is the bridge between Romanticism and the Objectivists. Standing in the gap between subject and object, like a man on a beach saying alternately that this is the land, while at the same time saying this is the ocean, as he does in The Idea of Order at Key West “She was the single artificer of the world/ In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,/ Whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song” (1954:128). That they are both at once, perception being the blindness from which sight emerges, seeking to capture thought in action. Or saying that he cannot see the thing in itself, because it must first be seen by the eyes, which are themselves objects; ‘not that which the eye sees, but that whereby the eye can see’, from the Kena Upanishad 1:7 (Easwaran and Nagler 1987). As Stevens demonstrates, symbolist and objectivist poetry are not entirely at odds with each other, just as the two methods of phenomenology are not entirely at odds. They just use the symbol in different ways. One may not be satisfied by simply suggesting, while others may not be satisfied with naming.
Joseph Campbell discusses the use of symbols in the Vedantic Hindu tradition as serving dual purpose both for engagement and disengagement. Engagement satisfies our curiosity and explains the symbol through familiar means, just as hermeneutic phenomenology does, referring to cultural, social and linguistic conventions “simultaneously informed by and protected from the unknown” (Campbell 1969:169). The observer understands the thing in a familiar context in order to explain and be done with it already, whereas when used for disengagement, transport, metamorphosis, it becomes a catapult, to be left behind.
Here Campbell quotes a passage from the Munduka Upanishad, which I will paraphrase, the symbol is the bow, his soul is the arrow, Brahman is said to be the target (the object). This is remarkably like the concept of the epoche in transcendental phenomenology where one leaves the protection of the symbol and its meaning to meet the mysterium tremendum; the feeling that precedes and surrounds the object, or the event as it is experienced in the moment, but which has no context, because it is outside and beyond all our hermeneutic methods. This is the surplus in triple-O that defies all attempts of history, culture and civilization to explain it. But even this is not absolutely unknown, there is still somecontext in which we can experience it in our awareness (whether consciously or not), albeit only in the present and only for an instant. The still farther absolute unknown is what we call the non-dual, this can be compared to the white space upon which the poem appears. Its whole purpose is simply to provide the field for the poem to be read, remembered and if necessary, reread again, perhaps with a new understanding of its meaning. The writing itself becomes the symbol through which the experience is expressed.