Graham Harman replies here and here to my last contribution, and Paul Reid-Bowen joins in with an interesting and original take on the debate at Pagan Metaphysics. I’ll try to keep my reply to both of them fairly brief in what follows.
Graham writes that “You can’t find the cane toad by summing up all the effects it currently has and receives from all other entities.” I agree. To find the cane toad you would have to interact with it, and even then you would only find what you were capable of finding. If, theoretically, you could interact with it in such a way that you would be able to observe and summarize all its effects on and from all other entities, including the effects that manifested over the time of your observations (since these take time and, to some extent, always affect what is being observed) and all of its internal relations (which include its potentials or virtualities carried over from the past), then I suspect you would have come as close as possible to “finding the cane toad.”
Aside from philosophical differences, which I think both Graham and I have summarized pretty well by this point, there is a quasi-historical narrative in his reply that amounts to a rhetorical strategy which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really bear on the philosophical virtues of his position. He writes:
“Relationism had a lot of cutting-edge power when the alternative was crusty old-fashioned substances and natural kinds. But I think that battle is already won, and we live in a relationized world when we read most recent philosophers. My claim is that relationism has therefore lost its subversive power, and has settled in as the new dogma. To oppose that dogma, we need a better theory of the excess outside all relational contexts.”
An alternative quasi-historical narrative might go something like this:
Relationism had a lot of cutting-edge power when the alternative was crusty old-fashioned substances and natural kinds. Numerous local battles have been won, but globally relational philosophies have tended to get caught in the grooves of the same persistent dualisms — subject and object, mind and matter, humans and nature, agency and structure — that have shaped western metaphysics and the modern world. Deconstructing these dualisms is neither as easy as some had thought it would be, since they aren’t mere “discourses” and “social constructs”; nor is it sufficient, since there really are a great many differences, and different kinds of differences, within the relational fabric of the world. We still need better theories of the different kinds of relational processes at work in the world.
As for the “subversive power” of either relationism or OOO, I think this depends on what it is that’s being subverted. If philosophy is seen as a world of its own, then subversion might be that of a consensus or dogma being critiqued and ultimately replaced by a new one. Graham’s goal, as expressed in that paragraph, would seem to be the goal of subverting the subversives. But if philosophy is seen as a tool for living, then the point is not to change the philosophy, but to change the world. With that in mind, it’s debatable, to say the least, how well relationism has established itself as any kind of dogma. As for OOO, the proof will be in the pudding.
I find the questions raised in Graham’s second post to be more challenging and interesting. My response is perhaps a naive one, since the questions genuinely puzzle me, but I’ll hazard one anyway. He asks:
“How can the continuous and the discrete fit together in the same philosophy? It’s one of the central problems of philosophy (as well as mathematics and the longstanding gulf in physics between relativity and quantum theory).”
In the real world (if I’ve understood the question correctly), one finds the two coexisting with each other everywhere: a thunderclap suddenly announces the beginning of a rainstorm; a pail fills up gradually when left sitting in the ensuing rain. The first kind of event is systemic: things work together in a particular way for a while until something happens to trigger a shift into a new state. The second kind is additive, “continuous.” I’m guessing that most events (as opposed to continuous changes) are probably a combination of the two, because they involve complex relations between dynamically interacting systems. Some things that appear continuous can be quite discrete: humans, for instance, grow at a fairly continuous rate until their growth begins to slow down, but the changes a child goes through in its development are triggered by events and occur in “windows” that have a discreteness about them. If you don’t learn to speak a language by a certain age, you will never learn; that stage in the development of the brain will have bypassed you, overtaken by the set of systemically coordinated possibilities that make learning a language, or sexually reproducing, possible, for a while.
Even very simple systems, such as a thermostat-regulated furnace, combine the two: continuous changes in temperature trigger a discrete change in the state of the furnace. Signs — things referring to other things for observers — trigger responses. Where there’s a lot of signing and a lot of responding going on, as there happens to be in our universe, there are a lot of events, that is, discrete changes, occurring. It’s never occurred to me that the continuous and the discrete cannot co-exist, so I find Graham’s observation about philosophers a little worrying. But maybe I’m just not understanding the question correctly.
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Moving on to Paul’s post: Having some familiarity with the kinds of relational and processual holists he is describing — Goddess thealogians, Gaian pantheists, Neo-Pagans and New Paradigm thinkers, et al. — I can sympathize with his conundrum, which he expresses poignantly and, in the following passage, evocatively:
“It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves.”
What surprises me about this — though I’m guessing that Paul’s frustration arises out of a very specific and personal academic trajectory, so I don’t mean to be hard on him here — is that he would have expected detailed explanations of “precisely how things relate to one another” from theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists, and not from the many social scientific and humanistic accounts of such relations — detailed post-constructivist (or co-constructive, material-discursive) analyses of a tremendous array of socio-technical-political-ecological ensembles, all of which draw on relational and processual theories in nuanced and empirically oriented ways to make sense of real-world processes and events. To begin listing names here is probably unnecessary, and I’ve named many of them here on this blog before; but a casual look through the leading theoretically sophisticated journals in human geography, anthropology, science and technology studies, environmental history, and a host of other fields, should be enough to indicate what I mean. What one finds in that literature is reference to thinkers like Latour, Foucault, Haraway, Deleuze, Guattari, Harvey, Lefebvre, Massey, Law, Stengers, Massumi, Thrift, Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, Connolly, and others, all of whom can be reasonably considered “relational” thinkers. What one doesn’t find (yet) in the vast majority of that literature is any reference to object-oriented ontology. While Harman, Bryant, et al. may begin to infiltrate that literature over time — and more power to them — comparing them to Goddess thealogians as a source for “explaining precisely how things relate to one another” seems like comparing apples with tulips.
Paul’s question “have you ever actually seen a relation?” could be answered with the rejoinder, “Have you ever actually heard an object? Smelled or tasted one?” Seeing is a relation. Is it possible to see anything outside of a relation? Failing to recognize that the thing you see is something that you see seems to me a fairly serious error.
This is not to suggest that we cannot say anything about things in themselves; it’s just that relations are fundamental. There’s the relation between myself and the words I’m typing on the screen in front of me, but each of these is already a manifold of relations — relations which include my nervous system, fingers tapping a set of plastic keys, the English language, computers and electrical cables spanning the world, people sitting in front of some of those computers who read the same books as I and ponder similar topics, and so on. The fact that each of these is something specific — my nervous system, the English language, a particular keyboard and monitor (and a particular model of keyboard and monitor) — doesn’t mean that it’s not a product of a series of (specific) relations unfolding in time, coming together in specific ways, coming apart in others, and working together for a while as long as conditions allow it.
The same sort of thing can be said of the impact of the La Garita Caldera volcanic eruption 28 million years ago, or of the damming of a lake by a family of beavers. The volcano, the eruption, the dam: what is each of them apart from the forces that move through them, except the singularity, the signness, that we observe and name as such? The “volcano” is our name for something, it is not the name nor the perception that a flock of geese or a stream of lava have of that same “object,” though they may perceive and reckon with something that overlaps with our “volcano.” The “objects” of the world are our objects; other subjects have their own objects, with the two categories slipping over into each other in every moment, and no wishful thinking will eliminate all that subjectivity and chiasmic interperceptivity from a world that is bursting with it.
What exactly is gained by calling these things “objects” that isn’t already there when we call them by their (everyday, human-given) names and recognize their temporary, processual, and at the same time very specific nature? The latter is what Latour tries to do when he makes sense of the (planned but never built) Aramis transportation system in Paris or the pasteurization of France; it’s what Haraway does with cyborgs and primatologists, what Cronon does with Chicago and White with the Columbia River, Tsing with Indonesian rainforests and Whatmore with global wildlife networks, Helmreich with microbial oceans, Protevi with the Columbine massacre and Hurricane Katrina, and DeLanda with the last thousand years of germs, languages, and cities. It’s what I tried to do with the red rocks of Sedona and green hills of Glastonbury (and with some of the same thealogians and eco-Gaians that Paul got frustrated with). These studies aren’t definitive, but unless one puts an object in its context, one doesn’t know the object; and when one does, that object becomes a meeting-point of so many other processes and flows. It’s still a point, and I appreciate OOO’s question, which seems to be something like “but what is the invisible underside of that point?” Or “once you’ve delineated all the processes and flows that make up a point, what’s left over?” Their answer is different depending on the theorist, but what they all seem to insist is that it isn’t “nothing.” That’s interesting to me, and if their ontologies tell us something important that’s missing from the accounts we get from relational (and other extant) theories, then they’ll have gained their place at the table of useful tools for understanding the world.
But maybe the point, for a philosopher, is that all of those empirical studies of real-world phenomena are based on one or another kind of philosophical hodgepodge (as most are), and that the task of producing a pure and perfect ontology still lies ahead of us. Since that’s not really my game, perhaps it’s unfair for me to be critiquing it. I would like object-oriented ontology to be part of the game I’m playing, part of the palette of ideas I can bring to the task (in my case) of theorizing the intersection of cultural and environmental changes as these occur in the world today. I hope its tools will be useful for that. But I don’t see any reason to ditch the relational ones that have already been well honed.
(I suspect I’ve said enough on this issue for now. Thanks to Levi, Graham, Paul, and others for engaging me.)