Levi Bryant’s detailed and generous replies to my critical queries, both in the comments section of this post and at Larval Subjects, and Graham Harman’s replies here (and in an e-mail exchange) have helped me get a much clearer sense of where the main differences lie between their respective “object-oriented” positions and my relational view. In the process, I’ve been once again impressed with both of these philosophers’ willingness to engage with those who disagree with them, and to do that publicly, and practically at the speed of (digital) light. Here I just want to summarize what I see as the main difference between an object-oriented account of the world and a process-relational account.

Regarding Levi’s position (I’m not quite sure about Graham’s or the other object-oriented philosophers), I’m satisfied that the most significant difference is really just a semantic one. His view of “objects” is highly nuanced: it takes account of their relations with other objects, and of their capacity to change over time. While there’s a strong resistance to subjectivity in the object-oriented ontologists’ writings, such as when Levi writes that “The point is to avoid falling into that trap where every object is thought or conceptualized as a relation to a subject,” this seems to me analogous to my own resistance to the language of “objects.” Both of these resistances, I’m presuming, arise out of a shared desire to bypass the traditional understanding that there are “subjects” and there are “objects,” and that some things in the world, such as humans or minds, fall into the first category, while others (and perhaps everything else) fall into the second. This classic Cartesian bifurcation is considered untenable both by the relationalists I tend to draw from (Whitehead, Bergson, Peirce, Deleuze, James, Connolly, et al.) and by the object-oriented ontologists. Their resistance to “subjects” is probably stronger because of the prevalence of “subject-oriented” accounts and the absence of recognition of the nonhuman world in recent Continental philosophy. But my sense is that this difference between us is more tactical than foundational.

My understanding differs, however, in that I prefer to jettison the very idea that objects or subjects — that is, stable, persistent, self-subsistent objects or subjects — exist at all. Rather, I’m interested in reformulating subjectivity and objectivity as processes, as achievements, as “moments” or modes of functioning, each of which is dependent on the other and arises with and alongside the other. Therefore, and in contrast to what the object-oriented ontologists assert, I would maintain that subjectivity only arises in relation to objectivity, and vice versa. To speak of “objects” interacting with each other without recognizing that that interaction includes a “perceptual” or “subjective” dimension of some kind is therefore incoherent.

But I’m defining perception and subjectivity in very broad terms here, to include not only what we humans experience as subjectivity, but also the very “minimal” forms of it that one may find in the “act” of an amoeba responding to an object in its environment by moving toward it or away from it, or in the molecules of a piece of metal mingling with oxygen to create rust. The slowness of the latter, and the minimal amount of “agency” compared to what we call agency in human behavior, does not eliminate the structural parallel in that there is something being activated by something else, or responding to something else. The world, in a process-relational view, is this responsiveness and its unfolding over time. And this responsiveness of one thing to another takes a form that Whitehead referred to as “dipolar,” with subjectivity and objectivity being the two poles within this structure.

Following Whitehead, I take everything in the world to be of this nature, and in this account speaking of objects apart from subjectivity, or subjects apart from objectivity, makes little sense. Of course I cannot directly experience the subjectivity of a tree twisting its way toward the sun, or of a squirrel in that tree, or of a molecule of sap moving within its trunk. But that makes it no less a piece of the world than my own subjectivity. In turn, “my” subjectivity is also neither permanent nor self-sufficient. It arises out of conditions; it comes and goes, stitching itself together narratively as it goes along, and it wouldn’t be able to do that without the maintenance of a certain objective accompaniment — a body with specific sense organs and things to perceive through them, a history of formative experiences relating to others through gesture, language, and so on. “My” subjectivity may be much more semiotically complex than an amoeba’s, but structurally they are analogous.

I’m obviously following Whitehead here, whom Graham calls one of the two “best of the bunch,” along with Latour, of relationalists. Whitehead sees the fundamental constituent of the world to be relational process, that is, events, actual occasions, moments of experience. An occasion of experiencing, for Whitehead, is the “process” of the “actualization of potentiality,” a process that has an inherently “emotional” and “prehensive” nature. In “Objects and Subjects,” which is one of the clearest brief articulations of this problematic that I’ve come across (you can also find it through JSTOR in its original 1931 form), Whitehead revises Descartes’ claim that “the subject-object relation is the fundamental structural pattern of experience” by disentangling it from the identification of “subject-object” with “knower-known.” “The basis of experience is emotional”, he writes: “the basic fact is the rise of an affective tone originating from things whose relevance is given.” The structure of this experience involves a “subject” with a “concern” for an “object,” with subject and objects being “relative terms”: “An occasion is a subject in respect to its special activity concerning an object; and anything is an object in respect to its provocation of some special activity within a subject.”

Individual subjectivity, for Whitehead, or “our consciousness of the self-identity pervading our life-thread of occasions, is nothing other than knowledge of a special strand of unity within the general unity of nature,” a unity in which the “general principle is the object-to-subject structure of experience,” or “the vector-structure of nature,” or “the doctrine of the immanence of the past energizing in the present,” or “the transference of affective tone, with its emotional energy, from one occasion to another in any human personality.” “Each occasion has its physical inheritance and its mental reaction which drives it on to its self-completion.”

These quotes don’t capture the complexity of the universe conceived as a tumbling forward of such interrelated and interacting, differentiating and coming together, moments of experience. (One of my favorite quotes from the same article is that “The creativity of the world is the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact.”) Other relational accounts, such as Latour’s actor-network theory and DeLanda’s, Protevi’s, and others’ Deleuzian assemblage theories, are better at accounting for the different ways that different things come together into patterned networks, with agency (subjectivity) and thingness (objectivity) distributed in particular ways through those networks. But in principle a Whiteheadian account seems to me quite amenable to an elucidation of how different relational processes result in different outcomes. They don’t all wash out into an undifferentiated flux.

The spectre of this “flux” is one that Graham raises again (he has done it before) when he refers to the “free-for-all wonderland of relationality where a thing is nothing more than its relations.” He continues: “you can’t just replace a cane toad with some other creature and get the same results.” Of course, I completely agree with him that you would get different results from the importation of cane toads to Australia than from the importation of rabbits to Australia, or of blue jeans to China, or of nuclear weapons from Russia to Kyrgystan. That’s because cane toads are a different set of relations than all these other things. I see no reason why a relational account cannot recognize such differences. Just as objects are not all the same, neither are relations all the same. Some relations come in more stable bundles than others, and if we wish to call those “objects,” that’s a semantic choice and a matter of relative emphasis (between stasis and openness, being and becoming, etc.).

In his post, Harman claims that I make

“a familiar point about how individual objects are nothing more than abstractions made by humans from a prior process or flux. Whatever the merits of that claim, it is obviously not an integration of the two sides– it’s a simple subordination of indviduals to processes.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever claimed that objects are “nothing more than abstractions made by humans.” Far from it: I would say that objects arise in all relational processes, whether those processes involve humans or not. But they are part of these processes, not separate from them. This is not a “subordination of individuals to processes,” since, in my view, individuals are processes, though processes of a particular kind. They emerge in and out of, and in the midst of, other processes, but their “individuality” consists of the maintenance of a particular structure over time. “Subjectivity” as humans experience it (and to some extent or in different ways as other sentient beings may experience it) can be part of this “individuality,” but it is still processual. Whether this “subordinates” anything to anything else is a moot point; it’s a description of the world. It sounds different from Graham’s and Levi’s descriptions because I’m emphasizing process and they are emphasizing thingness or objecthood (not to the exclusion of process, but just as a point of focus). Both are, as Graham puts it elsewhere, “views,” and while this may be a problem for him (“What OOO claims is that views from nowhere and views from everywhere are both views, and that’s what is wrong with them”), it is honesty for me.

All that said, I still find much more commonality between our approaches than difference. Bryant, Harman, Bogost, and other object-oriented philosophers are doing a wonderful job articulating an ontology that accounts for the richness of the world in a way that refocuses our attention from humans to the other things that make up that world. I applaud that effort and cheer it on. I’m especially appreciative of their willingness to be so public and open with their work; it has, in my estimation, become a great example of how philosophy can and should be done in the digital era. I’m a little uncomfortable with their decision to highlight the word “object” for all the reasons I’ve stated. My preference is to focus on the relations between humans and the other things that make up the world, and philosophically, I prefer to do this by drawing on relational perspectives such as Whitehead’s, Deleuze’s, Latour’s, et al. (and sneaking in some non-western philosophies that provide complementary tools for the task). Graham (and the others, I presume) feel there is something missing from these accounts, but I haven’t been convinced of what it is.

With that difference in mind, however, both are ways of bringing the richness of the world — in all its objects and its relations — back into philosophy in a way that will help us make sense of how those relations could be improved. To my mind, they desperately need improvement, and therefore we need better accounts and understandings of that world. It seems to me that both these approaches have convergent philosophical goals, and so it’s healthy for them to comment on and critique each other, as long as we steer away from the “trench warfare” Graham wisely warns against. I’m grateful for the opportunity to take part in these exchanges, and I look forward to continuing them in one way or another. (For now, though, I hope we’ve cleared up a few misunderstandings and can move on to our other work.)

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Related posts:

  1. the politics of objects & relations
  2. Bryant’s objects & a possible object/subjectology
  3. relations vs. objects, part x
  4. daughter objects (& processes)
  5. let a thousand objects bloom
  6. the relational seduction of (and between) objects