I’m on the road, and haven’t been able to keep up with the continuing exchange that’s now drawn in Steven Shaviro and Chris Vitale in addition to Levi and Graham, with side comments from Peter Gratton and others. That despite Graham’s call for a “cease fire,” which elicited some spirited responses from Levi, Steven, and Chris.
For me, some of Levi’s most beautiful writing comes when he gets personal. The first few paragraphs in his reply to the cease fire call are among the peak of the whole discussion, because they get at why he and probably all of us, to some extent, engage in this form of public debate:
“Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue. [. . .]
“I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. [. . .]
“As I begin this post, I thus find myself in the ironic and awkward position of enacting Ivakhiv’s thesis by marking a certain relationality at the heart of conceptual and philosophical space. But, in the fashion of a good hysteric, I do so as an act of seduction, but with the caveat that I mark a dialogue not as a relation, but as an object or actor in its own right that persists after the traces of its occurrence and continues to effectuate itself in the world.”
I love this acknowledgment of the relationality at the very heart of thinking, and the hysterical seduction (a relational act par excellence) that accompanies it. Others acknowledge the usefulness of the dialogue for their own writing as well. Shaviro writes:
“Harman and Bryant have stimulated my thoughts, even (or especially) when I disagree with them. I need them in order to develop my own ideas, even when these are at variance with theirs. The important thing to do is to avoid the habit (which is inculcated into all of us as academics, I fear) of focusing everything upon the critique of others, instead of positively developing one’s own ideas. I can’t avoid criticizing certain aspects of Harman’s and Bryant’s work, since my own positions have in fact been formulated (in part) in reaction or response to theirs. But I hope I have succeeded in using these criticisms as only a jumping-off point to my own development of ideas that go in a somewhat different direction. The problem is when the criticisms become an end in themselves, so that the war of disagreements becomes more significant than the positive developments of ideas by both parties. Hopefully I have avoided that.”
I can also see that with Levi at least — though there’s probably something more universal about the blog format that facilitates this — the more he blogs, the more he enters into a kind of stream of pure thought, where the words and images come to flow like a river, with points of reflected sunlight scintillating off the surface, reiterating the arguments with subtle variations and transformations as they develop, always in response to questions, comments, critiques. Read the rest of that very rich post for an example, if you haven’t yet. I think of those points of light as singularities, and the individual arguments (Levi’s, Vitale’s, mine) as they evolve as the “objects”, rather like individual birds or crickets chirping their calls in a forest where all the calls mix in a shifting conversation where background ambience blurs with individual sounds, as in the “lift-up-over sounding” aesthetic that Steven Feld describes in Kaluli (New Guinean) musical aesthetics.
But then the whole conversation, the performed piece (the beginning and ending of which is difficult to determine) is also its own kind of object. And the medium in which that conversation takes place (the internet, the grove of trees) is also an object, or set of relations between objects. The interpenetration, chiasmic intertwining, networking, of all of these “objects” strikes me as “where the action is,” which is why I prefer an “additive relational realism” over a “subtractive objectal realism” (to play on Levi’s terms).
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Just a quick comment on what Chris and Levi both picked up on in a previous post of mine, the idea that “Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real.” I think the relationship between capitalism and the objects-relations debate is obviously complex, and any attempt to oversimplify it (including my original comment) is bound to fail. (Anything to do with capitalism — a reification of a complex set of economic, social, political, and technological processes — is bound to get oversimplified.) My point, as I recall, was not that capitalism actually produces more objects than relations — which would be difficult to assess, since objects and relations are such different things (though the fact that it produces an awful lot of objects is irrefutable). It was just that by producing ever more and newer objects for our consumption and making them alluring so as to fuel our desire for them, it directs our attention more to the objects than to relations. We think about getting that new SUV, or diamond ring, or bag of All Natural Handcrafted Potato Chips, or that Fair Trade Shade Grown Latte, not about what effects that car will have on the world or how our purchase will affect political relations in southern Africa or a farmers’ coop in Guatemala.
Ah, but there… The argument contains the seeds of its own destruction, because the same set of relations that facilitates the marketing of diamond rings and SUVs also facilitates the marketing of Priuses and Fair Trade coffee, which are, for some at least, about relations as much as they are about objects. And buying that object is often at least as much about relations as about the object — the diamond ring being the obvious example, the simple desire to “keep up with the Joneses” being the more banal everyday variant. So that point about capitalism making us more attentive to objects should be considered alongside a more general argument that includes modern forms of visuality (and the de-emphasis of other senses), scientific developments (such as the early modern obsession for classifying and ordering things according to visually systematizable differences), and much else. All those arguments are pretty old now, and to the extent that philosophers, from Nietzsche and Bergson and Whitehead to Foucault and Derrida — not to mention twentieth-century physicists and nineteenth-century biologists — have dealt with them quite a lot, would lend credence to Graham’s view that processual and relational ontologies are now old hat. They still don’t take away from my argument that those ontologies have not yet been successfully applied to understanding and refiguring socio-ecological relations in our time, and that therefore we need to continue thinking relationally. But there’s something to Graham’s critique.
I agree with Chris’s point that
“its more than just capitalism that makes us, as Adrian says, “think that objects are real.” I think language does that, our corporeal bodies do that, our need to survive in physical world structured like ours does that, the fact that we take up a single perspective in spacetime due to our physical bodies does that, etc. That is, I think there are many, many, many reasons why we “think objects are real”, and often lose sight of processes.”
This makes it imperative to consider the materiality/corporeality that shapes our own cognition/perception of things, which are, after all, the things we are trying to make sense of in our ontologies. This materiality (human bodies and their cultural and technological extensions) is part of the world we are trying to describe — as is the materiality that all other entities rely on to “describe” (make sense of) their own (perceived) worlds in whatever ways they do that. So perception/subjectivity must be taken into account in any realist ontology. If “object-oriented ontology” does that (despite the apparent implications of its name), and I think it does, then I have no real issues with it aside from disliking the name.
In any case, I think we are all learning from these exchanges. I certainly am.