Here’s a quick reply to Levi Bryant’s reply to my post from this morning on objects and relations:

I have no qualms about Levi’s terminology, which I find to be generally very lucid and thoughtfully articulated. A philosopher not only has the right, but is expected to develop terms that mean something specific within the terms of their philosophy. If objects, then, are defined as “generative mechanisms, as powers or capacities to produce differences,” or as “four-dimensional space-time worms,” as “ongoing events” and “processes,” etc., as long as these definitions are consistent with the rest of one’s philosophical system, that’s perfectly fine with me. (In fact, I like it, since, aside from the worms, it sounds like the way I think of things.) At some point, it risks becoming akin to Humpty Dumpty’s words to Alice: “When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean; neither more, nor less.” But this is par for the course in philosophy, where one must be granted some space to develop the terminology that would bring new concepts to life.

The issue I have is not with either Levi’s onticology or Graham’s OOO as it is with the general perception (a perception I don’t think I’ve gotten from either of them, but from others) that “object-oriented” philosophy, as a kind of generic term, is a new and important development within Continental philosophy. Used in this broader sense, especially with the “-oriented” attached to the “object,” one can’t help but to think this means “object” in the everyday English sense of the word. And when I get asked (as I have been) why I’m interested in this trend, it’s difficult for me to answer that, because the term sounds too much like “objectivity,” “objectivism,” and all the other things the word “object” has been philosophically associated with.

The general answer others might give, I imagine, goes something like this: it’s a move away from X (subjectivity, perception, phenomenology, correlationism, Kantianism, relationism, or whatever else) and back to the actual real THINGS that make up the world. (That of course sounds, unintentionally I’m sure, a lot like Husserl’s “Back to the things themselves!” The difference is that here it’s the actual things, not our perceptions of those things. But I’m not willing to concede that we can purify the world of our perceptions.) While I can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard this, it’s still made to sound too much like a swing of the pendulum from one side (subjectivity, relationality) to the other (objects). And I dislike that both because I’m tired of swings of the pendulum, when what we need is more integrated accounts of how all these things (objectivity and subjectivity, etc.) work together, and because I think it will have a hard time doing much work outside the limited circles of (mostly) young Continental philosophers who use the term now. So my issue is really a strategic one.

Levi continues:

“If there is not something in excess of the local manifestations of entities at a particular time within a particular configuration of relations (actualism) then we are at a loss to explain how anything new emerges. For this you need something anterior to relations. “

I agree with this as long as the word “local” is in there, because I see spatiality – from the “local” to the “global,” and across any intermediate or middle layers – as produced through the same processes that make up reality. As for whether “you need something anterior to relations”, that would depend on how you define “relations.” But even as processual a thinker as Peirce would likely agree that relations are secondary (they are “secondness”) to a kind of creativity of phenomena emerging into existence (“firstness”). (Not that that’s what Levi means, but the point is that definitions make all the difference.)

When it comes to Levi’s account of ecological relations and of capitalism, I don’t think we are saying such different things. Levi writes:

“Our ecological questions always revolve around questions of what happens when new objects are introduced into an existing collective assemblage of objects. How does the introduction of cane toads change things in Australia? What happens to Australian ecosystems with the introduction of this new actor?”

This is one way of stating the case. Of course, the importation of cane toads into Australia is not simply the entry of an “object” into an existing ecosystem. It is part of a whose series of processes (colonialism, imperialism, etc.), which brought not just cane toads, but people, languages, weapons, sciences, and much else, and which triggered changes through the relational systems that made up the continent. My argument is that focusing on the object – the cane toad – may blur the outlines of the processes that are responsible for their introduction. But there’s nothing mutually exclusive about understanding both cane toads (in and for themselves) and the other processes that brought them to Australia. An actor-network perspective, for instance, is pretty good at looking at how the ‘cane toad-Australia’ network got built and at the role that the cane toads themselves played in this. That’s the kind of account I’m after.

When I say that capitalism privileges objects over processes, and Levi replies that “the situation is precisely the reverse” — that “With the emergence of commodity capitalism we have not become focused on objects, but rather objects have increasingly evaporated altogether, becoming replaced by process and relation” — I think we are both guilty of oversimplification here. And I’ll grant that I overemphasized my point. But describing postmodernism as “constantly mutating and schizophrenic simulacra” doesn’t help us understand why it is that people still want to buy a particular car. Do they know they the car they think is “solid” will “melt into air”? If they don’t, then perhaps their perception will give us an insight that’s worth retaining. Part of my point was that it’s important that we understand the processes which make people want to buy (particular) cars, and Levi’s response indicates that he believes object-oriented ontology will help us understand these processes:

“OOO is more than capable of analyzing the relational networks that generate this phenomena. Part of its critical edge, however, lies in rejecting the move that would reduce entities to these relational networks. And it is precisely because it argues for an excess of entity over these relations that it promises a means of responding to these networks.”

I’m not sure how OOO does better than other accounts in analyzing these kinds of relational networks, but I’m open to finding out. I’m also still not sure what the “excess of entity” is. But based on Levi’s response to my post, I’m quite happy to concede that his onticology is pretty compatible with what I’ve been calling “relationalism.” So maybe I should just get over my issue with “objects,” and let a thousand objects bloom.

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Related posts:

  1. daughter objects (& processes)
  2. subjects & objects, together or apart…
  3. the politics of objects & relations
  4. Bryant’s objects & a possible object/subjectology
  5. relations vs. objects, part x
  6. Democracy of Objects