In response to my last post, Levi is arguing, as Graham has before, that relational ontologies have had their day, that “it is relational and processual thought that has become a habit that prevents us from thinking, not object-oriented thought,” and that “For the last century we’ve repeatedly said ‘things are related’ to such a degree that claims about interdependence, relation, and interconnection have lost a good deal of meaning” and “become stale metaphors and worn coins.” He continues:

“Rather than beginning with relation, context, interdependence, interconnection, etc., what would we learn if we instead thought of autonomous objects perpetually shifting and jumping between relations? My wager is that this would teach us a great deal more in the ecological framework than endless talk of holism and relation. We would begin to ask how substances perturb networks, rather than treating networks as static and fixed systems where all is harmonious and balanced as we tend to do now.”

It’s true that there is a popular view of ecology as positing systems that are, ideally, “harmonious and balanced.” (We might call this the Disney Lion King version of reality.) Ecologists themselves used to speak about certain kinds of networks (ecosystemic “climax communities”) that way in the 1920s and 1930s, and in some cases up to the 1960s or so. Some environmentalists still use those tropes on occasion today. But if everything actually was “harmonious and balanced,” would there be any need for environmentalism at all, since there’d be no need to concern oneself with re-establishing some modicum of “harmony and balance”?

In his previous email, Levi defends objects and substances on political grounds:

Now what follows, in relation to this noble [ethical/political] concern, if you’re an ontological relationist? Well, you certainly can’t theorize any movement beyond oppression or domination. Why? Think it through. Because the object that shifts relations is an entirely different object [my emphasis – ai]. Thereby nothing has been liberated. Rather, we’ve simply gotten a new object. This doesn’t seem too reassuring. What is needed is objects that are mobile and nomadic, objects that enter into relations, while always remaining irreducible to their relations. That, I believe, is what OOO articulates.

But, in itself, how new and different is this? Hasn’t our society institutionalized the presumption that people are, first and foremost, individuals, though they may link up into groups, societies, cultures, corporations, and the like, and that objects are distinct objects (belonging to those people) first and participate in ecological processes only secondarily (if at all)? I know that Levi’s onticological variant is a highly nuanced and new version of it, but doesn’t this independent-objects-entering-into-relations model practically define the modern Western philosophical tradition?

As for Levi’s description of the process-relational position – that “the object that shifts relations is an entirely different object – why should this be the case? Let’s think about it. If objects are defined by their relations, and if all are processes of one kind or another, as a process-relational view would hold, then what happens to an object that shifts relations? Well, it all depends on how it shifts which relations. One cannot speak of relations as if they are all the same. The equivalent, for an objectologist, would be to claim that all objects are identical. Neither claim is a fair characterization of the other position, and it would be helpful if both sides refrained from claiming it about the opposing side. If objects are particular kinds of relational processes -– the kinds that maintain certain formal properties over time (and over multiple sets of relational “shifts”) –- then objects do not become “completely different objects” unless and until those formal properties change or disintegrate in fundamental ways. They can still change some of their relations without fundamentally altering the overall set of relational processes that (self-)constitute them.

So, for instance, a human being does not become a “completely different object” by eating a new kind of breakfast cereal. (Perhaps it takes such mundane examples to show the absurdity of this kind of claim about relational ontologies.) But a human being may temporarily become a somewhat different object by ingesting a hallucinogenic mushroom. The reason why eating Corn Flakes doesn’t fundamentally change the person (and I have to admit some exasperation in detailing something that seems to me so obvious) is that the cereal only affects a small subset of the processes that make up that human, and they affect it in ways that are readily assimilated into the cycles of those processes. A sacred peyote-ingestion ceremony, on the other hand, has an effect that is much more powerful, affecting a larger subset of the processes constituting that person. But these, too, will go away, with the baseline processes returning completely or in partially (and sometimes significantly) altered forms. It’s all about the nature and character, rhythms and periodicities, apertures, trajectories, etc. of the processes that make up the “object” in question. (Process-relational philosophy prefers not to speak of “objects,” since it’s not clear what’s meant by such abstractions, and because Whitehead, at least, uses that term to mean something more specific; but it can certainly speak of things like humans, peyote plants, storm systems, and so on, because we can easily agree that we know what’s being referred to by these terms.)

Levi seems to be assuming here, as Graham has in the past, that if objects are defined by their relations, then somehow all objects become all relations, with no differentiating between any of them. As Levi wrote here:

Rather than a holistic system in which everything is internally related to everything else in a sort of fixed crystalline structure (or, at least, a structure that only unfolds diachronously according to a synchronously structured system), we instead get fleeting and temporary structures where actors or objects can depart from different regimes of relations and thereby come to manifest very different qualities.

The first part is worded as a critique of “relationism,” but it’s a relationism that sounds too much like old structuralist studies of indigenous cultural mythologies or of films or novels, where it’s assumed that the object is more or less set and bounded (but not that the entire universe is). The second part — “fleeting and temporary structures…” — sounds very much like the kind of description I would call “process-relational.” The rest of Levi’s post does as well:

What if instead the social field is composed of independent actors that move in and out of relations, where relations are constantly reconfiguring themselves, where there is far more freedom than we ever expected. If that’s the case, then suddenly the nature of the question changes significantly. Rather than asking how to escape from a holistic field of interdependent relations, we now ask why any set of relations manages to persist at all (this comes as a surprise insofar as objects are external to their relations). We begin to engage in the world of cartography, analyzing the regimes of attraction that bring about rather stable configurations of actors. And through this cartography we begin to local [locate?] weak links, points of passage, points where change is possible, through the severance of certain relations or the introduction of other actors that might modify the network as a whole. Most importantly, we direct our attention not to a subject, but to the organization of situations. In this way we avoid forms of abstraction that are so focused on Act and Subject that they ignore regimes of attraction playing a constraining role on how actors can manifest themselves. We learn something of the world and perhaps, through that knowledge, acquire the means to change it. [emphasis added]

This is, in my view, process-relational ontology in a nutshell, or at least one variant of it. The emphasized bits sound very much like the sorts of material-discursive poststructuralisms being developed in geography, anthropology, and other fields over the last twenty years, and of course like actor-network theory, which is, after all, a network theory. Latour has himself referred to it as “actant-rhizome theory,” and an actant, as we know, is not an “object” with all the properties an ontologist would assign it, but just something that “could be said to act”; and a rhizome is also not an object but a movement, a relational vector.

It’s obvious to me, then, that Levi’s (and Graham’s) object-oriented ontology is very compatible with the kind of process-relational view that I espouse, differing only in its emphasis and its language. As Levi puts it here, citing Harman, “no matter how many points of view on the object you enumerate, even if they go to infinity and eternity, you will never have an unadulterated access to the object precisely because objects are withdrawn.” The process-relationalist agrees that you will never have unadulterated access to the object, but this is not because (a) there are stable objects that (b) aren’t fully stable after all, because they persistently “withdraw”. It is because that’s the nature of reality: things change, withdrawing and deferring and differentiating themselves as they do. What makes it interesting, for a process-relational ontologist, is less what those things are (being) than the ways that they change and can change (becoming). That goes both for the “withdrawing” object and for any object that would try to “have unadulterated access” to that object.

Instead of positing two steps, then -– (1) more or less stable objects, and (2) the qualification that these objects withdraw — the process-relationist posits a world of different kinds of relational processes in which arising/withdrawing/deferring/differentiation is just what happens, the way of all activity, though it arises and develops in different ways. I like the idea that objects “withdraw” -– it’s part of what confirms OOO’s processualism for me (and why I would like to call it object-relational or, even better, object-deconstructive ontology, object-now-here-and-now-gone ontology). But I don’t agree it necessarily makes it an obviously better approach to a world that is always fundamentally in process.

As for the political questions, I’ll leave it up to others -– especially regular folks not steeped in arcane Continental-philosophical debates –- to decide whether or not we already live in a world where everything is thought of in processual and relational terms (only) and where objects and substances are no longer thought to exist (as seems to be the suggestion in Levi’s post).

* * * * * *

A recap on why process-relational ontology is far from obsolete

My belief, if it needs reiterating, is that we -– society at large -– still have not developed a nuanced enough understanding of the nature of relational process, including the many different kinds of relational processes that make up the world. This is why we still put animals in cages (as if the jaguar in a cage is the same as the jaguar in a forest) and dump toxins on our farms (as if the final product is the pest-free corn and not the health of the soil), still produce objects that are guaranteed to be obsolete junk in a few years (as if their making and disposal wasn’t an integral part of them), still buy those objects (as if they will satisfy our cravings for something new and exciting), still send soldiers to war and forget about them when they come back (leaving their partners and kids without health insurance, as is the case with a friend of ours who lives up the road), still expect that we can “win” wars (as if they won’t breed the resentment that will lead to even worse wars), still define people according to fixed gender identities and racial categories, and put people away for life (in this country at least) because they don’t have the means to live in ways that would exercise their creative potential, and so on and so forth.

As long as our society cannot institutionalize the taking into account of where things come from, where they go, and how actions affect the world, now and generations down the line, we still don’t understand the nature of the world. That world is relational and processual: everything unfolds in and through relational interactions over time. Actions, being relational, bind us together or they separate us. All that there is is action, which means relational exchange and process. We, too, are action, or the capacity for it, which is why we can make change –- and do, inherently, with every act of ours. We create ourselves through these acts, which means we create the relations that constitute us, and relations always involve others. We need to better understand the effects of our actions on others, because the world that is produced through our actions (and theirs) is the only world there is.

Objects that remain separate, on the other hand, and that ultimately withdraw into their own shadowy selves from the open space of encounter, are objects that don’t need to take into account such things. They can presume an independence, a freedom, above and beyond the hazardous fray of lively interaction. Establishing such relative independence is not a bad thing: it’s how a planet like ours protects itself from meteors and ultraviolet rays (through building up a thick atmospheric skin), and how humans have managed to squeeze out the capacity to live lives that are long enough to raise children and grandchildren, to write books and craft dramas, to travel the world and come back home to ponder what we saw. But the urge toward the comforts of that kind of independence can become obsessive, compulsive, and toxic. It is itself a relational act, and it is the kind of act that colonial-imperial culture has used to shield itself from the very relational results of its acts upon others. Of course things withdraw from their relations, or from some relations and toward others -– with oneself, one’s memories and fantasies (in our dream lives), and so on. Everything does that to some extent, and nothing is fully definable, describable, and accountable by its relations — because there’s no one there to fully define it, and even if there’d be such a one, an all-seeing, non-processual God, by the time the defining and accounting came to its conclusion, the thing being defined would have been long gone.

The quality of the relations that make up the world is what counts. I think that process-relational thought is aligned here with feminist theory (in all its forms), with anti-racist and anti-/de-/post-colonial thought, with the Marxist and anarchist critiques of oppressive class structures, with the Mahayana Buddhist vow to “liberate” all beings and the Christian vow to help “the least of our brothers” (and sisters), with the pagan and indigenous sense of respect for the cycles of life, and with the poststructuralist account of the networked, relational flux of ideas and concepts and things in general. Ethically and politically, I have no doubt that our object-oriented friends are plowing the same fields as us, and I respect their desire to start from (ontological) scratch so as to create a distinctly new language for thinking about things and the world. In fact, I find their work fascinating, and find its proponents (certainly Levi and Graham, who are the only ones I’ve read a fair bit of now) to be genuinely brilliant and interdisciplinary wide-ranging thinkers. I greet their work with eagerness, and am grateful for their willingness to tolerate and engage my criticisms.

But I don’t, for a moment, think that the “coin” of processes and relations is “stale” and fully spent. If anything, it hasn’t really been cashed in yet. It may seem familiar from its popular and superficial variants (the “Disney ecology” referred to above, structuralisms and textualist poststructuralisms, and so on), but it hasn’t been developed enough yet along the lines that Whitehead, Peirce, Deleuze, and more recently DeLanda, Protevi, Shaviro, and many others have pointed toward, and that would fully engage with the sciences of cognition and consciousness, complexity and nonlinear dynamics, and the like. Arguing that it’s passé is a rhetorical move that will help OOO get some followers among discontented Continental philosophers, but I don’t think it will get much beyond that particular neighborhood. To the extent that it provides a reasoned defense of the need for a different approach to things, I can understand their resorting to it.

Ultimately I believe we are saying very similar things and just emphasizing different, but more or less complementary, aspects of those things. But it’s a difference that makes enough of a difference for us to keep thinking about it.

(I realize that this has turned into a bit of a rant and that it probably would be easy to pick out select pieces of it to critique. Perhaps that’s what I’ve been doing with others’ words, too. I’ll try to do less of that, recognizing instead that certain subarguments will always remain contentious, especially where terms are being used differently (e.g., my “relationism” may not be Levi’s, his “objects” aren’t mine), but that the broader points of agreement, and a general sense of respect, need to be kept central.)

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