A glimpse of Armillaria ostoyae, said to be the world’s largest organism (whatever that means)

Replying to me here, Graham Harman explains his objections to relational ontologies, arguing that they fail to make a distinction between the “two sorts of relations” in which an entity is involved. These are not “the famous ‘internal’ and ‘external’ relations,” but are what he “somewhat whimsically” calles the “domestic” and “foreign” relations of an object. (I like this distinction, though I’m not sure how it’s different from internal and external relations.)

GH: “Surely Adrian doesn’t want to claim that the cane toad is a set of all its relations? If Mars were five inches further along in its course than it currently is, would the cane toad be a different cane toad than it is now?”

AI: I’ve repeatedly said that relations aren’t all the same. The cane toad’s relation with Mars is obviously going to be different than the cane toad’s relation with the fly it is about to eat. I would venture to guess that the first is so negligible as to be nonexistent. Neither the toad nor Mars, to the best of our knowledge, perceives the other, which means that neither enters into the other’s world. This is not to say they aren’t connected: the cane toad has some relation to the lake it swims in, which has some relation to the river that flows out of it and into the ocean, which has some (gravitational) relation to the moon and, much more faintly, to Mars. There may be other connections: the cane toad may live among humans who worship Mars and eat cane toads to celebrate the red planet’s first ascent in the night sky after the annual monsoon season ends (and after ritually purifying the toads to neutralize their humanly noxious ingredients).

But if we are concerned to make sense of a particular entity, we should stick with the relations that define it, and neither the cane toad nor Mars bears much relevance to the other. The relation between the two is not just “foreign” but, for practical purposes, nonexistent. The toad’s relation to the fly it is about to eat, however, is significant, and is one that changes from being a relation of mutually “foreign” objects (assuming the fly has some awareness of the toad) to one in which the fly stops being a fly and becomes part of the toad’s “domestic” territory, part of its organic structure. Through the exchange, the toad’s “domestic relations” have changed, albeit minimally. If, however, the fly is poisonous to the toad, or is hallucinogenic (in toad terms), then those domestic relations could change dramatically. Such changes are going on all the time, without ceasing.

GH: “From the fact that the cane toad cannot exist without a certain sort of relation between its pieces, it does not follow that the cane toad is relationally defined with respect to the outer world. The same cane toad could be moved to Japan or Italy and still be the same.”

AI: If the environment in Japan or Italy is similar to the one in its home country (we’re speaking metaphorically here, since cane toads have no perception of countries), then I would agree with this; but if not, then I wouldn’t. In the same way, if I was moved to Pluto, I wouldn’t survive the move, and wouldn’t be myself any longer, unless I was cyborganically (radically) modified for life on Pluto. While that may be a theoretical possibility, would it still be me? Such a question would likely only be relevant for the part of me that maintained a memory of the “me” it used to be, because aside from that trailing sense of subjective continuity, my body, its habits and behaviors, and most or all of its external relations would probably have had to change dramatically in the extraterrestrial move. The object-oriented ontologists’ account, as I understand it, wouldn’t be able to refer to “subjectivity,” however, so the question of whether it’s still the same object would have to be answered some other way. An analogous, and more earthbound, question is whether a widely (and freely) ranging territorial animal, say a jaguar, is the same entity once it is captured, shipped halfway across the planet, confined within a tiny cage in a zoo, fed canned food, and gawked at by humans. I don’t believe that such questions have straightforward yes/no answers. The animal has not died, but neither is it the same.

My general point here is that the environment of an entity does matter. An organism and its environment mutually shape each other, not only in the evolutionary history that the organism has inherited, but in the active life-history of that organism. (See biologist Richard Lewontin’s classic article “Organism and environment,” reprinted in numerous volumes, for a cogent expression of this argument.) And where there are many organisms mutually shaping themselves and their environments, there’s, to misquote Jerry Lee Lewis, a whole lotta shapin’ going on. To deny that would be to maintain a more rigid dichotomy between the “domestic” (internal?) and the “foreign” (external?) than we find in nature. All living things, at the very least, consume, produce, and metabolize other things. In the process, both the thing and its environment change, even if certain sets of formal relations are conserved over time. Those sets of formal relations make it possible for us to recognize certain things as “individuals,” or as “objects,” but such designations only apply to certain types of things and not to others (for instance, it’s not so easy to talk about ants or bacteria, let alone hammers, quarks, Toyota Corollas, Armillaria ostoyae, or the Dutch East India Company, as “individuals”), and their application is not always very clear and becomes, at some point, arbitrary.

The difference between an “individual” and an “object” seems pertinent here as well, which is why I don’t mind retaining the everyday meanings of these words. I don’t mind being treated as an individual, but I’d rather not be treated as an object. I do treat my bicycle as an object, but treating it as an individual would seem a little quirky. In reality, however, the bicycle is more like an intermittently active extension of me, and me of it; we constitute a relational network, or part of such a network (along with the bicycle paths/lanes of the city, the local cyclists’ lobby, the habits of car drivers, traffic rules, and so on), for brief periods of the day during the summer months.

That said, there’s a strong and intuitively appealing case to be made for what Graham calls “a sort of firewall blocking the two forms of relations ['foreign' and 'domestic'] from one another.” I fail to see, however, why a relational account cannot admit of such “firewalls” or, to use more fashionable complex-systems lingo, of “attractors,” “bifurcators,” and the like (which constrain the behavior of relational systems within certain parameters, or define the parameters by which those systems become something different from what they were). The maintenance of such a firewall, which by definition allows some things through but not others, is an active and dynamic process, consisting of sets of relations (internal and external) interacting with other sets of relations, each of which changes or develops over time. A bear or tree goes into hibernation for the winter; an ex-caterpillar sheds its larval “firewall” to become a butterfly; I learn how to consume vast quantities of alcohol, or become a heroin addict, or learn to spend most of my time in online game worlds, surfacing for food or drink only once or twice a day but dramatically affecting the features of the game world; my partner grows a fetus within her body, which is born and, in intimate interaction with her and other humans, becomes a child, eventually an adult, and perhaps gives birth to her own children; the Earth begins to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, leading to the emergence of aerobic organisms; and so on. The point is to develop a vocabulary sensitive to the various kinds of change, interaction, dynamism, network-building, and system-maintenance that make up the world as it proceeds forward from one moment to the next, developing new habits and actualizing new potentials and emergent relations along the way.

GH: “Relations require relata. [. . .] And this is why OOO will ultimately become more popular than it currently is– people will start to see that you can’t make sense of much of anything if you don’t leave some room for individuals at the basis of your ontology.”

AI: I agree that relations, by definition, require relata. But those relata can in turn be described as one or another kind of relational process or system. Some of these have characteristics that we have come to conventionally designate by such terms as “objects” and “individuals,” because they maintain a recognizable relational structure over time, and because that makes them resemble something in our own experience (which is perhaps a bit of anthropomorphism on our part). Others, such as ecosystems, remain useful abstractions, though their “firewalls” are indistinct or nonexistent. But all of them remain dynamic, relational processes. Among and between the many kinds of processes that make up the universe are many possible forms of relation. Distinguishing between two types or sets of such relations — internal and external, or “foreign” and “domestic” — is only a beginning. If that’s how far we take it, then we may well get the relatively “flat ontology” that some have called for.

But “flatness” is a tactical move, not an accurate description of the world, which (I hope) will always remain lumpy, patchy, layered, sticky, complex, densely entangled, finely woven, always changing — and very amenable to different descriptions. The object-oriented ontologists’ descriptions of the world have many strengths, their nuanced sensitivity to nonhuman things being one of them. I appreciate their boldly Latourian effort to bring objects (like cars or pencils) to the same ontological level as living processes (like humans and animals, who engage both subjectively and objectively with their environments). It’s important for us to recognize how “we” ourselves (which is a subjective category) are extended, amplified, enabled, disabled, shaped, and transformed by all manner of “objects” — from our physical bodies with their neural architectures to our media, our medical and pharmacological extensions, our consumption and production networks, and so on.

Focusing on “objects” and “individuals,” however, seems to me to privilege the kinds of distinctions that are most familiar from our everyday human experience, where there are persons, cats, cars, cans of soup, and the like. The world, however, has a relational complexity that will elude such classification. What is needed, I think, is a vocabulary to account for all those complex kinds of relations and activities — feeling, eating, oxygenating, reproducing, socializing, swarming, migrating, thinking, dramatizing, road- and city-building, boundary-maintaining and -crossing, warring and peacemaking, atmosphere-carbonizing, and so on — which, because they are always and everywhere temporal, dynamic, and interactive, verbs rather than nouns, are better thought of as “processes” than as “objects.” They are, after all, where the action is.

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