I haven’t wanted to tread into the recent Speculative Realist debates over Derrida, in part because I haven’t had time for them (and my internet access has been a little unreliable), but in part also because I think they’re mostly reiterating themes that have already been well covered. OOO makes a valid and important point about Continental philosophy’s overall neglect of the nonhuman world, but it pushes too hard with its Meillassouxian critique of correlationism, which I don’t think ultimately holds up. (That’s a much larger topic than I want to get into here, but it should be enough to say that I think I agree with Chris Vitale’s Whiteheadian “absolutization of the correlation, with a multiplicitous twist.“)

And of course, as Graham and Levi argue, Derrida wrote mostly about texts. But he also wrote about death, mourning, friendship, cats, politics, and many other things, either directly or by way of texts about those things. Derrida’s defenders are right to defend him from the “correlationist” charge insofar as he did, at least in his later work, address the nonhuman world (animals) in innovative and useful ways, and insofar as his ideas lend themselves well to “non-correlationist” uses. But that doesn’t get most Derrideans (except those like Calarco) off the hook for what they haven’t done – which is OOO’s point.

All that aside, the recent exchange between Chris, Levi, and Graham has piqued my interest. In fact, Levi’s and Graham’s point about there being a “real Paris” is one I can almost get myself comfortably on board with — and I think that Chris could, too, if the terms of the exchange were made a little clearer. Here’s what I mean, and why the hesitant “almost”…

I believe that there really is a Paris. Or at least that there really are objects of the sort OOO-ists speak of — things that actively maintain a coherence and consistency in the face of and over the course of changing relations, and that in this sense “withdraw” from total involvement and exhaustion within any single such relation. OOO pushes this farther: they claim that things are more than the sum total of all of their relations (over time) put together. I wouldn’t go that far, since it raises various questions that may be difficult to answer, such as how we could possibly know whether all of those relations have been accounted for or not (though I think Levi would claim that that point is irrelevant, since it’s an epistemological question), or which relations are internal and which are external (and whether and why there should be such a clear line between the two), or whether unexpressed/potential/virtual relations (capacities for relation, which arise out of real previous relations) should count for anything. But the point is that objects, as defined by OOO, exist. That’s a point I have no trouble with.

Whether or not Paris is such an object, however, is another matter. I think there’s some confusion/conflict arising here because we are using language to refer to things that are both within (dependent on) language and outside of (independent of) language. The word “Paris” is a linguistic and cultural artifact, and its meanings depend upon the uses of that artifact. But we know that the word “Paris” refers to a city, a place that consists of much more than just language and culture, but also of buildings, streets, rivers, bridges, trees, libraries, traffic patterns, information flows, a sedimented and ongoing history of events and actions, and so on, and that these are organized in specific ways that make Paris “Paris.” Chris himself alludes to both of these Parises when he refers to the “infinite number of potentially incompossible graspings layered on the spacetime location of Paris.” There are the graspings — the uses of the concept “Paris” (in language, literature, photography, film, politics, everyday lives, etc.) — and there is the “spacetime location,” the assemblage of streets, trees, historical and geological strata, and so on.

But what kind of assemblage (object) is Paris? Is it one that acts and maintains itself in the face of change? Is it, in other words, agential in itself? Could it be taken out of its relational contexts and dumped somewhere else (like Graham’s toads flown from Japan to Australia) and still be Paris? Hmm… It is certainly made up of a certain organized structure of agents and actors (and actants, things about which we’re not sure whether they are actors or not, but which could be said to be actors). Paris is a city, and cities are certainly actants, in the Latourian sense that they “could be said to act”. Latour’s term is useful here because it allows us to refrain from having to decide whether or not something is really and truly an actor or not, or even what that would mean, and instead to focus on what it does, how it connects up with other things (actants), what sorts of connections it enables or constrains, and what kinds of networks get built in and through it.

OOO seems (my interpretation here) to suggest that it is not only things that are obviously actors — organisms and the like — that act, but that all actants act, that is, at least insofar as they all actively withdraw from their relations. But this strikes me as very close to saying that all “things that could be said to act” (i.e., actants) in fact do act. And that is to risk putting epistemology (which concerns itself with deciding what can act) into ontology. I don’t think that OOO-ists intend this; it’s just a risk that arises out of their strategy, a risk that manifests when Paris, or hammers, or toy trains, or whatever, are used as examples of the independent and perpetually withdrawing “objects.”

This is where problems arise, and I think it’s why Chris can argue that there is no “real Paris” behind the “infinite number of potentially incompossible graspings layered on the spacetime location of Paris.” There is still the spacetime location of Paris, and there are all those graspings. But what’s real may be something that withdraws in the very sense that OOO-ists claim the objects withdraw. For Chris, things withdraw precisely because they are not objects, but relational processes that perpetually withdraw from our graspings (with the “our” being not just humans but everything). For OOO things withdraw because they are objects. So Chris prefers not to say that “Paris” withdraws, but this doesn’t mean that the reality (the graspings, the relational processes) doesn’t withdraw; it does. For OOO, on the other hand, it’s Paris, or umbrellas, or baseball games, or whatever else, that withdraw.

This insistence that the very things we think of as lifeless objects are actually most alive, vibrant, shimmering, and ungraspable, is what makes OOO’s claims so radical and exciting. And yet it’s also what leads so easily to misunderstandings. It seems to me that the difference between objectological (Bryant, Harman, Bogost) and relational (Vitale, Shaviro, me to the extent that I’ve articulated it, et al) ontologies is not ultimately that great, but the strategy of articulating these ontologies makes them seem more different than they are. Graham, for instance, has often argued that processual and relational languages have had their day, the implication being that they haven’t done as much as an object-oriented approach can do. But I think that processual language (of the kind that Chris is expressing in his post) does a better job of reminding us why things withdraw. Speaking in terms of objects (Paris, umbrellas, train whistles, etc.) makes it too easy to fall back into the common-sense understanding that these things are just are the things that make up the world, and that their relations (and the processes by which these relations unfold) are secondary. Graham and Levi adamantly and articulately argue that this isn’t the case, that relations aren’t secondary. But habits of thought are difficult to change. Just because relational languages have been used by some philosophers to talk about some things (discourse, text, etc) doesn’t mean that they have been exhausted and found wanting when it comes to understanding ontology.

Chris’s post is, incidentally, much richer than I could summarize here. Just to pick up one piece that’s worth reiterating, Chris writes:

“Its all images, all perspectives, all graspings, all the way down. But there is no ’correct’ underneath at any given spacetime location – even spacetime is a grasping of the universe by itself by means of its constituents. The boundaries between semiotics and ontology break down in this sort of generalized, radicalized epistemology, to the point at which the very distinctions between these become one of aspect rather than firm distinction.”

Several of Levi’s recent posts, meanwhile, convince me that the objectological and relational camps of speculative realists are really not that far apart. Levi writes, for instance:

Objects are this self-differing [...] minimal identity that a) can manifest themselves in an infinite number of ways when they enter into relations (the concept of “local manifestation”), b) nonetheless posses a minimal identity or iterability (they can occur in a variety of different relations), and that therefore c) are the ruin any thought of context, holism, totalizing system, or complete relational determination. As Dan so nicely puts it, objects are an ontological turbulence, a vortex, that withdraw from all relation (while perpetually landing in relations), insuring that the world is always full of surprises.

The “self-differing” and the “vortex” language is as process-relational as one can get, and yet the insistence that these objects “withdraw from all relation” is counter-intuitive. To a Deleuzian-Whiteheadian, what’s important is that the objects are always seeking relation, not that they’re withdrawing from it. But of course, they’re doing both, and to us (humans and everything else) who seek relation, it’s crucial to recognize that our objects of (desired) relation are always withdrawing, always disappearing down the rabbit hole, always slipping away.

That, of course, is very Derridean, as Levi’s next sentence acknowledges:

“Here OOO shares a profound affinity with Derrida’s “messianism”. Derrida’s messianism does not refer to the idea that there’s going to be a savior. No, what Derrida’s messianism refers to is the coming of the new, of that which cannot be anticipated, of that which cannot be conceptualized or mastered in advance.”

Because without that slipping away, there’d be no novelty arising either. This rhythm of the slipping away and the appearing into existence is exactly what I find embodied in the ontologies of Peirce and Whitehead, but with the addition that the two of them emphasize the cumulative processual curve of it all (which is what allows us to get at the “ancestral,” as Meillassoux calls it).

So is there a real Paris? Almost, almost. There’s certainly something there to be grasped, and something that slips away.

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