I’m looking forward to Graham Harman’s forthcoming review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and I’m glad to see that this discussion between object-oriented philosophy and Bennett’s vibrant materialism (and, by extension, the other theoretical impulses she draws on, which this blog, for the most part, enthusiastically shares) is getting underway. That discussion will no doubt continue over the summer as this blog, Critical Animal, Philosophy in a Time of Error, and maybe a few others engage in a collective reading of Bennett’s book. (Perhaps that should be followed by a group reading of Tim Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought.)

While Graham’s argument that relationism is “a spent force” is obviously not one that will convince the growing number of scholars drawing in productive ways on relational theories (Whitehead’s, Deleuze’s, Bergson’s, Simondon’s, Latour’s, Serres’s, Stengers’s, et al), he’s entitled to make that case. He summarizes his objection here in this way:

“I don’t think the problem with correlationism is simply that it’s human and world, as though bringing non-humans in can fix things. Shifting from (cor)relationism to simple relationism is already a refreshing step, but still leaves the central problem untouched. There are too many pitfalls that arise when you think a thing is only what it is for other things, without reserve. [emphasis added]

“Why don’t more people see this? I think it’s because the realism of autonomous objects still sounds boring to people. It sounds as if one is defending a sterile landscape of essentialist billiard balls and eternal solid forms that engage in relations only through trivial and fleeting incidents.

“Towards a non-boring realism…”

I’ll agree that the “realism of autonomous objects” can sound boring, and I’m supportive of anyone who tries to make it sound less so (which Graham does, and very well). My only concern is that once one admits that these autonomous objects engage in relations not only “through trivial and fleeting incidents,” but in all manner of ways, and all the time — that things are always engaged in relations and are defined by the history of relational couplings and interactions that make them up — then the relational dimension starts to overtake the “objective” in its significance.

Let’s think for a minute: At what point do I, or did I, become an object? When an egg was fertilized by a sperm in my mother’s body? Or when I emerged from that body at birth? The latter would be a reasonable starting point, since the bodily separation is a defining moment, both physically and (usually) culturally. But surely I couldn’t exist for long on my own after that. Or was it when I learned to take my place within society as such and such a person, distinguished from others through the Lacanian mirror stage and over the course of a long socialization? But again, Lacan’s point is that this “I” is thoroughly relationally defined. So it would have to come back to the body. And yet does an ontology focused on bodily separation, aside from seeming a bit dated, tell us much of interest about life, the world, and how we could and should deal with them? I’m intrigued by the idea of an object-centered ethics, but I’m not sure what it would bring to the ruling liberal-democratic mix of utilitarianism and deontology — which are their own kinds of “democracies of objects” already — that isn’t already there in principle unless one adds a substantial dose of relationalism.

(By “there in principle,” I mean that each offers resources for non-anthropocentric ethics, resources that have been pushed beyond the human realm by environmental and animal-rights philosophers like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Paul Taylor, and others. As ethical theories, deontology and utilitarianism are, of course, about relations — or at least about how to decide the relative virtues of alternative courses of action concerning relations — but their focus is on the duties, or consequences of actions, to specific kinds of entities. They are not really about the quality or character or feel of a relation. And I’m not sure what an object-oriented ontology would add to them in that respect unless it were to emphasize the “feel” of relations between specific kinds of objects — between a golf club and a golf ball, or whatever. Relationism, on the other hand, is all about the forces, the flows, the affects and contagions, the enablings and disablings, openings and closings, gatherings and dispersions, connections and resistances, within the movements that we find ourselves caught up in, wherever we are.)

I see no reason to defend one end of the relational spectrum over the other — the object over the flow, or vice versa. But it seems to me that when relations are made central to ontology, then the question becomes one of parsing out the different forms of relative stability and change one finds in the world (with the more stable over time, and over their developmental histories, being those we could call “objects”), the different kinds of relations one can enter into, and so on. On the other hand, when objects are made central, this dynamism is lost at the outset and has to be brought back in through redefinition, clarification, qualification, and so on. Redefining the world as made up exclusively of objects, with no subjectivity, seems a non-starter to me, since that would eliminate agency, experience, feeling and responsiveness from the whole picture. At the same time, redefining it as made up of things that are “only what [they are] for other things, without reserve” — the line I’ve emphasized in the above quote from Graham — also doesn’t make sense. Far from being a description of relationalism (as I understand it), that actually sounds like the traditional definition of an “object,” something that lacks any subjectivity or the capacity for it.

All of that only strengthens the case for a view in which relational processes — processes of subject/object-ivation — are taken as central. Whitehead’s redefinition of objects and subjects as specific to the occasion in which their objectivation and subjectivation (mutually) occur gets us out of the dualistic trap that sees the world as divided between objects and subjects, with entities falling, by definition, into one category or the other (e.g., humans or minds as subjects, and everything else as objects). It allows us to get into the moment so as to better identify the point of agency, the subjective feeling or “prehension” that, by virtue of responsive action or decision, becomes “satisfied” in the event of “concrescence” that is the “actual occasion.” And it also makes it plain that everything — every event that makes up an eventful universe — is like this, to a greater or lesser degree. Feeling, experience, and agency (and meaning/significance/semiosis, once one adds Peirce to the picture) are writ through all things. They are certainly not exclusive to humans.

Ontology, however, is to my mind just a starting point. We do our best to make sense of things — to ontologize and epistemologize — in order that we may act within the world in ways that are more aesthetically, ethically, and rationally pleasing, informed, and coherent. (I’m following a Peircian triad there, with aesthetics as our response to the firstness of things, ethics as our response to the secondness, that is, to those who impact us and whom we interact with, and reason as our way of thinking through the patterns and regularities, the thirdness, of the world.) Ontology informs our action, but getting stuck on ontology is ultimately beside the point. So when I think about why a relational ethic, aesthetic, and ontology are attractive to me, it’s because I experience the world as one of relations, one in which I feel and act in response to what happens to me and near me. Knowing how one object differs from another (or how they are similar) is important, but ultimately what counts is how we relate and what we do with our lives (the “our” being a relation, and the “lives” being relational processes). Pace Graham, I don’t think there’s anything “spent” or out of date about that.

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