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The level of discussion following my review/critique of Harman’s Prince of Networks, along with Harman’s brief but welcome response, has encouraged me to post a few more thoughts about this difference between “relationalism” and “objectology” (my term for a central part of his object-oriented philosophy or ontology), that is, between a view that holds that the world is constituted by “relations all the way down”, and a view that admits the world is characterized by relations (of all sorts) but asserts that each entity has an essential non-relational essence. (Thanks to Mark Crosby for his eloquent summary of the dispute in the comments to the last post.) Harman’s reply raises a couple of issues I’d like to address at a little more length.


GH writes: “But that doesn’t mean that people and things only are what they are by virtue of the specific relations in which they are now involved.”

Relationist responds: It’s not just the relations in which a thing is now involved, but the relations that have shaped those relations, and back, all the way down. And because the relations that have shaped ‘me’ at any given moment are different from the relations that have shaped ‘you’ at that moment, it doesn’t all wash out in a big holistic stew (as GH would have it). Identity, or object-constancy, is still possible because the set of relations at a given nodal point can retain enough consistency to maintain a certain sense of sameness over time. But this is a perception that’s conditional on maintaining certain relations over time. (In this sense, the self is a temporal and historical construct, devoid, as Buddhists would say, of intrinsic or inherent identity. By no means does this suggest that we do not carry forward certain memories, understandings, sensibilities, and so on, for long periods of time, and that these can’t “disappear” and “reappear” to our consciousness.)

GH concludes his reply by saying that “Only because something in me is not fully expressed by anything that happens can anything new ever happen to me.” To which Relationist replies: that “something in me” may be “not fully expressed” does not negate the relational nature of those “things in me”. Things making up “me” are carried through moment-to-moment — some of them get expressed in a manifest way, others get expressed — or perhaps “impressed” is a better way of putting it — in a ‘latent’ way, for instance, as a longing, a desire, a feeling of unfulfillment, and the like. (These don’t need to be consciously felt, since a ‘person’, and all the more so a non-personal object, is always more, perhaps much more, than what they may grasp in their ‘consciousness’ at any given moment.) These ‘gaps,’ if you like, build up so that when an opportunity for a certain kind of new relation arises, there’s a sort of pressure that shifts things in that direction, and you have novelty.

So perhaps the dispute here is between those (like Whitehead, Deleuze, Connolly, et al) who hold that novelty comes from within the system of relations (and then proceed to define what that system of relations is, how it works, what its relative insides and outsides are, e.g. Deleuze’s virtual/actual, etc.) — versus those who hold that novelty arises from outside that system of relations. The latter group includes GH’s non-relational (or not-reducible-to-relations) objectology, as well as psychological essentialisms, transcendentalist theisms, et al. From a relationalist perspective, the onus should be on these more-than-relationalists to specify what is outside the system and how it interacts with what’s inside. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age provides a good example of a transcendental theism which, in my reading, fails to define transcendence in a satisfying and coherent way, but rather hints at it with words like “fullness” and (when he’s being honest) “God.” Similarly, Harman doesn’t, to my satisfaction, define what his non-relational essence is. If it’s non-relational, is that because it’s never been related to anything? In that case, where does it come from? Obviously, it can’t be that – so what is it? Where is it? And how does it relate with the relational?

There are those, like Derrida, or Heidegger in his poetic earth/gods/self-withdrawing moments, who admit they can’t say anything positive about what the outside-the-system is — and yet still proceed to point to it in evocative ways. Derrida might even claim that there is no outside, even as the system is always said to be slipping as if into a black hole that neither is there nor isn’t there. This is all consistent with the venerable tradition of apophatic thought or ‘negative theology.’ In my reading, there’s a Harman who leans in this poetic-deconstructive direction as well, the Harman of ever-withdrawing tool-being and of ‘time, space, essence, and eidos’ — let’s call him Harman-x — and the interesting question for me is how the relationship between Harman-x and Harman-o, the objectologist, will unfold.

The better relationalists, however, like Deleuze and Whitehead, don’t need an ‘outside-the-system’ because their systems are already bursting full of radical openings in every moment. Neither Deleuze nor Whitehead can reasonably be accused of trying to make it impossible for novelty to arise (can they?); both, of course, were obsessed precisely by novelty and creativity, which is what makes them so exciting to those who haven’t found a satisfactory source for novelty/creativity in traditional (dualistic, transcendental, Kantian, et al) metaphysical systems.

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Related posts:

  1. still process-relations all the way down
  2. relations vs. objects, part x
  3. the politics of objects & relations
  4. Things slip away… (on Harman’s Latourian object lessons)
  5. Harman’s object-oriented philosophizing
  6. in defense of relations (again)