By Richard Mather…

Flat poetics is derived from a recent development in metaphysical philosophy called object-oriented philosophy, also known as object-oriented ontology.

Object-oriented ontology is anthrodecentric and anti-correlationist. It radically challenges the Kantian (and post-Kantian) human–world correlate. Objects do not merely exist in relation to humans but are ontologically concrete and worthy of investigation in and of themselves.

To put it another way, humans are not the sole clearing space for Being (in the Heideggerean sense). All objects exist equally and exist regardless of whether a human or another object relates to it.

There is, of course, a subtle difference between saying that things equally exist and things exist equally. Levi R. Bryant uses the analogy of the sun and a coffee cup:

Both the sun and my coffee mug equally exist, but it is not the case that they exist equally. In terms of its range of effects, the sun has a far more extensive impact on other objects than my coffee cup. Both entities are, but it is not the case that both entities affect other entities to the same degree. […] [F]lat ontology is not a prescriptive thesis or a moral thesis. […] [I]t is not the moral call to treat all beings as equal. These are ontological matters, not ethical matters.

There is no split between the human subject and the “world.” Ontologically speaking, humans are one type of object among many. Flat poetics downplays the ontological priority of human consciousness and human perception. Therefore it is senseless to divide the world into subject and object or activity and passivity. And it goes without saying that object-oriented philosophers reject the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, as well as the concepts of God and soul.

The dismantling of the human-world or subject-object correlate means that the relation of humans to objects – whether they be daffodils, laptops, pebbles and atoms – is no different than the kind of physical interaction between an object and another object. There is no vertical chain-of-being with God or man at the top and quarks at the bottom. Rather, objects are horizontally spread out so that there is no top, bottom or even middle object. A star, a human, a plank of wood and an atom could be placed next to each other without any sense of priority or significance.

Flat poetics is not anti-human, nor does it ignore humans. Instead, flat poetics argues that humans are among being, not at the pinnacle of being. However, since it is impossible for a human to comprehend what it is like to be a cat or a pebble or a daffodil, it would be foolish (and perhaps arrogant) to write poetry from the view of these objects. Indeed, writing a poem about the interior life of a pebble would be impossible. The human mind is not a virtual reality machine in which objects can be recreated in all their fullness. According to Graham Harman, objects “hide” from each other and from humans. Objects are withdrawn from each other in the sense that they do not reveal themselves fully to other objects. Their essence (if we can use such a word) is inexhaustible and can never be fully comprehended (not even by the object itself).

When writing about things, the poet should remember that a shard of glass, for example, is composed of other objects, e.g. atoms, and that each atom is an object in its own right. Simultaneously, the poet must not be under the illusion that a shard of glass is simply a collections of atoms. No, the shard of glass is as real as the individual atom and the individual atom is as real as the shard of glass. The autonomy of the object – whether it be glass or atom – is paramount. To quote Harman, “we have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects”; furthermore, “every object is both a substance and a complex of relations.” There is no ontological priority.

On a final note, flat poetics rejects the Kantian and Schopenhauerian notion of the thing-in-itself, which reduces individual things to a single underlying thing or process. There is no ultimate reality underlying things. At the other end of the scale, flat poetics rejects the assumption that objects are simply appearances or phenomena perceived by the human brain.

To recap, flat poetics rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects. Humans are still important but no more important – ontologically speaking – than a mote of dust or a rock. But remember just because things equally exist, it does not necessarily mean that things exist equally. Flat poetics is about ontology, not ethics.


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