The objects versus relations debate has revved up again over at Larval Subjects, in the commentary responding to Levi Bryant’s Questions about the possibility of non-correlationist ethics.

The debate, as I would describe it, circles around the following question: If we agree that traditional philosophy has been too centrally premised on the relationship between humans and the world at the expense of the world itself (with all its other things, beings, entities, relations, and whatnot), then is it better to promote a philosophy that focuses on objects, that is, not just on human subjects/objects but all objects, or one that focuses on relations between things (subjects, objects, networks, processes, whatever)? The first approach is taken by object-oriented philosophers like Bryant, Graham Harman, and others; the second by relationists, such as those influenced by Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, and Spinoza, among others (though the exact list depends on whom you ask; a few recent and recommendable books in this latter tradition are Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, John Protevi’s Political Affect, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter).

Since I’ve responded to Levi’s points on his blog, I’ll restrict myself here to addressing in greater depth the question raised by Levi, Scu, and anxiousmodernman (in their comments) about the politics of relationalism.

Scu writes: “I agree there is a lot of exciting stuff out on the questions of relations. What I’ve felt is lacking is (1) a radical commitment to egalitarianism, and (2) an understanding of how to translate the theory of relations into more concrete situations. If you feel that stuff is out there, drop me some cites!”

Levi writes: “Politically, unless we begin from the premise that terms are ontologically distinct from their relations, I don’t see how anything like emancipation or change is possible. Badiou has understood this well. It is only where you have a radical ontological nominalism or independence of terms from their relations that it’s possible to reconfigure relations. Where, by contrast, relations are ontologically internal to their terms this sort of change is not possible.”

What I’ve objected to in Levi’s description of relations (as I have in the past to Graham Harman’s) is the argument that a relational picture of the universe leaves us with no way of understanding difference, uniqueness, and change. If things are nothing but their (internal and external) relations, then the world somehow must become a lumpy mass of undifferentiated wholeness. As Levi puts it (correcting for typos here, since this was a quick reply to a comment of mine), “Ontologically, if objects are their relations it would be impossible for change to take place. The universe would become a crystalline and static lattice because it wouldn’t contain any alterity within it in excess of relations. Additionally, nothing at all would exist because where everything is a mirror or relation to everything else there is nothing at all.”

But this isn’t a fair description of a relational understanding of things. Just as an object-oriented ontology takes note of distinctions between different kinds of objects (shapes, sizes, etc.), so a process-relational ontology takes note of distinctions between different relational processes: fast and slow, thick and thin, complex and simple, extensive and intensive, linear and multilateral, hierarchical and decentralized or egalitarian, etc. Relational processes have unfolded historically in ways that have given the world its highly complex and variable textures: its folds, thicknesses, speeds, movements, rhythms, consistencies, patterns, trajectories. That we find ourselves in amidst these folds, rhythms, and trajectories does not imply that we don’t exist or that we cannot act. We are our actions (including our reactions, deliberations, etc.); we are not separate from them. But a single action, such as brushing one’s teeth, hardly exhausts the things that one is doing at a give moment (glancing at the mirror, remembering what one looked like yesterday or as a child, thinking of what to say to one’s spouse upon re-entering the bedroom, digesting and experiencing pains associated with that, firing neurons, pumping blood, etc.). Since “I,” the one brushing teeth (which I do as a series of habitual movements), am fully intertwined with/in a material body, a form of lively matter that carries with it all sorts of capacities including those that are put into motion when we remember things, act on impulses or habits, etc., then there is always much more going on than “I” think “I” am doing. Consciousness is just one small (but important) piece of it all.

“I” am not restricted to “my body” nor to a given state of “mind.” But “I” am also not a permanent, self-subsistent entity that is separate from my relations (including those “I” may be conscious of but probably many, many more of those that “I” am unconscious of but mutually co-dependent with). What am “I,” then? A congealment of consistency, creativity (capacity for action), and recognition to which I ascribe the subjective identifiers “I,” “me,” “mine.” These congealments are changing, dynamic processes, which wouldn’t arise if there wasn’t an action of self-ascription. But it’s all action, all process, all becoming; there’s nothing permanent “behind” it. There’s certainly a carry-over from one moment to the next, a memory that persists through duration, existing simultaneously with the perception of the world that arises moment to moment, with both always changing, renewing, recalibrating, structurally coupling with its environment and accessing its available resources (available in and through the materiality of what it carries with it and of what it encounters). It winds its way up, works its way through various occasions (relational encounters, etc.) and eventually winds its way down, smoothly and slowly or quite suddenly, becoming something quite different (which it is always doing to some extent, but which it fully does only when the recognizable human social-body-subject “dies”).

This is “my” life, my being-towards-death if that’s how I choose to think of it (as Heidegger would) or simply my appearing-amidst-constant-appearance/disappearance. Ultimately it is not “mine,” because “I” was never there as a solid entity, nor will I ever be. I am present in my action at this very moment, acting on capacities, affordances and effectivities (to use J. J. Gibson’s language), present when I wake up and “come to,” and then present again when I come to the next time and connect that moment to the one I carry in “my” body-memory-materiality. Where am I when I am sleeping? Of course, there is no “I” except when “I-ness” winks into existence; the continuity of that “I-ness” is a result of carrying things forward. (This is a pretty Bergsonian way of describing things, consistent both with Whitehead and with Deleuze, but also with Buddhist onto-phenomenalism.)

Yet, finding ourselves continually within a social and relational world within which we are causally (or karmically, to use an Asian term meaning essentially the same thing) intertwined, having capacities for tremendous acts of empathy/sympathy and for grotesque acts of antipathy, our “I-ness” is inflected with ethical potential because of its very openness, its very ability to do either this or that or something else. And the complex sociality of our world also allows us to formulate patterned ways of interacting — and so, to develop and implement social contracts, standards and rules, and the like, or, for that matter, to contravene them, change them, agitate for more egalitarian conditions, etc.

This description of the world is really not that different from an object-oriented description except that it explicitly recognizes the temporality of what it is describing. But that difference to me seems crucial. It is a description that assumes that the world is made up of verbs rather than nouns. Now, this analogy of language would suggest that a more accurate description of the world may be one that includes both verbs and nouns, i.e., both processes and things — enduring, consistent, and relatively obdurate things. And that’s fine. But it’s the relative consistency or fluidity that is the key here, because there is nothing that stays the same eternally, at least not in a process-relational worldview. Such a view recognizes temporality as central, whereas an object-oriented view will tend toward forgetting it because of the assumptions of (relative) permanence, stability, and self-subsistency that come with the idea of “objects.”

So what I’m suggesting is that a relational approach gets at politics better than a non-relational one, since it allows us to focus on the qualities of relations, their fairness and evenhandedness, and on the processual nature of everything, e.g. on life processes from their emergence to their disappearance. This sounds a bit teleological in an Aristotelian fashion, i.e. with the implication that everything has its natural process of flourishing that, all else being equal, we should allow to unfold. There is something like that — a respect for process — in a relational (i.e., process-relational) ethic. There is also the possibility of throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Well, everything dies in the end anyway, so what does it matter?” But will an object-oriented ethic, one that says that “all objects are like this,” “all deserve this kind of treatment,” etc. — i.e., a post-anthropocentric Kantianism, which seems the natural destination for an object-oriented ethic, if I’m reading it correctly — convince someone who isn’t interest or capable of kindness and compassionate we-feeling? Conviction and commitment arise out of experience, with all its emotional engagement, not out of a merely rational assent to doctrines and rules.

In response to Scu’s question about relational theory’s commitment to egalitarianism and its applicability to concrete situations: I know it’s easy to think of examples of traditional forms of relational philosophy, such as those developed in Asia (Buddhism, Taoism, et al.) as well as in non-Christian western and indigenous contexts, and to argue that the societies within which these developed did not give rise to the kind of egalitarian thinking that emerged in Western culture. Buddhist and Taoist philosophers certainly had a lot to say about liberation, and also some to say about egalitarianism, but Indian, South-East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese societies in general did not develop and put into practice the kinds of concepts of individual rights that we consider “egalitarian” today.

This, however, abstracts philosophy from a whole cultural milieu in a way that is too simplistic and deterministic (and that could cut in more directions than one). There was much else going on in those societies than just philosophy and politics, and the one (philosophy) was hardly the unique causal determinant of the other (politics), or vice versa. Also, one can offer plenty of counterexamples, such as indigenous societies (say, those of Australian Aborigines or South American rainforest dwellers), that were relatively egalitarian and relational-holistic in their outlooks. (There are many possible debates here, but the argument has been made repeatedly, e.g. by Pierre Clastres, David Turnbull, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Stanley Diamond, Murray Bookchin, David Graeber, and others; and while most of these are somewhat dated, the tradition persists). And there are good cases of relational philosophers — Spinoza (most obviously), Deleuze, Foucault and other poststructuralists among them — whose politics are egalitarian in a fairly strong sense of the word. Within environmental ethics/philosophy, relational approaches include Arne Naess’s Spinozan “deep ecology,” John Cobb’s Whiteheadian process ecotheology, Joanna Macy’s Buddhist eco-ethics, and many versions of ecofeminism. They contrast in this respect with the more individualist forms of animal ethics such as Peter Singer’s utilitarianism or Tom Regan’s deontological ethics, or the bio-(not eco-)centrism of Paul Taylor, Holmes Rolston, and others.

Relationalism, however, comes in many forms. I think of actor-network theory as a form of relationalism, since its analyses (of which there are many, in such fields as science and technology studies, organizational studies, human/cultural geography, etc.; see, for instance, John Law’s book After Method for reference to various examples) focus on the processes by which networks of various kinds, extents, stabilities, obduracies, etc. are formed and hold together or fail to hold together over time. Harman has made Latour out to be an ‘objectologist’ rather than a ‘relationalist,’ but I think his work more naturally falls into the tradition of relational theorizing. (Since few studies of actor-network theory have been concerned with this object/relation debate, they haven’t bothered to make that point, but most, to my knowledge, take for granted that Latourian ANT shares more with other processual-relational approaches than with other kinds of theoretical frameworks.) Perhaps less contentiously, the same can be said of Deleuzian and most other poststructuralist approaches, and, to varying degrees, to those found in biosemiotics, Gibsonian ecological psychology, Batesonian systems theory, and certain other fields. These are all quite different, and they are just a sampling of some that I have found useful (for a few others, see Dan Little’s post from yesterday on relations, processes, and activities). But they generally prioritize relations over things, processes over fixed structures, and they have been “translated into concrete situations” in that they are used as research methodologies or analytical approaches in a range of scholarly work. Various kinds of Marx-inspired dialectical approaches (such as those found in the work of geographers David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Neil Smith, and others) also focus on processes rather than objects, though these sometimes err towards over-reifying capitalism — which is very much in the nature of the Marxian project. (And which has its virtues; but a good antidote to that overreification is found in J. K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It) and A Postcapitalist Politics.)

As for relationalism’s capacity for egalitarian (strictly speaking) politics, that too is a tricky question. Before one can evaluate the extent of egalitarianism versus non-egalitarianism (i.e., hierarchy or various kinds of class, gender, race, or species bias, etc.) in a certain context, one must specify what it is that is being compared. If it’s people, then egalitarianism requires treating human individuals equally. If it’s cultures (as in cultural relativism, as popularized in many anthropological studies), then it’s social/cultural collectives. If it’s objects, then… well, one would have to define what qualifies as an object and what doesn’t — which perhaps is where object-oriented approaches need to spend a fair bit of time (which is where I would get exasperated if I had to do that). On the other hand, if it’s cultural-ecological ensembles/assemblages/networks, as in some environmental anthropological work, then one either has to find clear boundaries around such assemblages (which cultural ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s tried to do, but their work has since been critiqued for reifying said cultures and ecosystems in unrealistic ways), or one has to focus on relations. In the best of such work, one focuses on both, and on multiple scales of relations and organizational structures/systems/networks.

But maybe there is a difference here after all… It’s quite possible that an object-oriented ontology makes it easier to measure things that are fundamentally of the same kind (objects as defined in such and such a way), and is therefore more amenable to egalitarianism to the extent that “equality” is considered a kind of sameness that is distributed across a certain set of entities. A relational ontology, on the other hand, prefers to focus not on equality but on qualitivism — that is, the notion that we should act in a way that preserves and enhances the quality of relations. I’ve argued elsewhere for an “ethic of circulating agency,” where what we value is that the ability to act, to pursue one’s goals, to respond to others, to grow and to flourish, is kept in motion , i.e., that it is actively distributed across the terrain within which the capacity emerges for such action, pursuit, responsiveness, and growth. I have yet to develop that idea in any philosophical depth, but I think it’s consistent with a poststructuralist and post-constructivist process-relational approach to politics.

Enough on that for now. I should end by mentioning how this relational philosophizing is working its way into my writing at the moment. Some of it has appeared throughout my work on landscape, space and place, environmental conflicts, and the various cultural dimensions of these things (such as in my book Claiming Sacred Ground). In the past, I had been concerned more with working my way out of a “social constructionist” frame, or rather out of the realist-constructivist dichotomy (see, e.g., this shorter piece here or this more extended, theoretical article, which is heavy on actor-network theory but somewhat preliminary and undertheorized in its discussion of other approaches; both are several years old now). Various cultural-ecological case studies that I’ve worked on over the years are being worked over into my book “Ecologies of Identity,” which is still some time away from being completed; the philosophical content there, however, is subsumed within a more broadly political and historical argument about emergent global public/media space and globalist and anti-globalist projects within that space. My film book, however, has been growing more philosophical as I write it — in fact, I’ve come to thinking of it as an “ecophilosophy of the cinema.” So that’s one place where some of these ideas will be worked out in greater depth, at least in terms of how they relate to cinematic perception. I’m hoping to have that completed before the summer, and out whenever it comes out, so watch for it if you’re interested.

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  1. relations vs. objects, part x
  2. subjects & objects, together or apart…
  3. Bryant’s objects & a possible object/subjectology
  4. More on Harman, or what’s outside the system of relations?
  5. still process-relations all the way down
  6. Buddhist objects & processes