One of the challenges of blogging is that, if one is to do it respectfully and well, one must be prepared to respond to one’s critics, and in such a high-speed medium this can lead to a pace that is unsustainable over time. The coming days won’t allow me much time for such exchanges, but I feel that Levi Bryant’s response to my last post calls at least for addressing a few apparent misunderstandings.
1) Levi raises the issue of mereology, which has to do with the relationship between parts and wholes. He writes that I’ve somehow given “the impression” that “groups, societies, cultures, and corporations are merely collections of [the] individuals [that make them up]” [his emphasis]. For OOO, on the other hand, “groups, societies, and corporations [...] are objects, substances, or individuals” in that they “are independent agents in their own right that are irreducible to individual persons.” Furthermore, he writes, “I cannot say that I’ve seen such a position [OOO's] anywhere articulated in the history of philosophy.”
I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that such groups are merely “collections of individuals.” Quite the contrary: a corporation is what it is by virtue of its relationship to a system of social and economic institutions and agreements that recognizes and enables corporations to exist, to hold certain rights and obligations, to act in certain ways, and so on. Its definition depends on those relations. If all the individuals making up a corporation were to be replaced by other individuals, while leaving the internal and external relations of that corporation intact, it would still be the same corporation (though it’s possible that its behavior might change to some degree). It is, of course, not limited to its past relations. A corporation can begin to “penetrate” a new “market”, as McDonald’s and others began to do in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, or when oil companies like Shell began to work in countries like Nigeria, or as many companies have done in China more recently. But this is always accompanied by changes in the sociopolitical and economic arrangements of those new “frontiers” (or “emerging markets,” as neoliberal literature referred to them); the corporation is hardly independent of these broader changes that facilitate its actions in new contexts.
The same goes for cultures and societies. Any social scientist except for a thorough methodological individualist (such as a radical rational-choice theorist) knows that a culture or society is more than just a collection of individuals. Structural functionalism, Marxism, et al are all built on that insight. Whatever Levi means in saying that he hasn’t “seen such a position anywhere articulated in the history of philosophy,” I don’t think it can be that corporations or cultures are “irreducible to individual persons.” It may be that corporations, cultures, and societies are “independent agents in their own right,” at least if he means that they are completely independent, as opposed to independent in some (generally agreed upon) respects. If that’s the case, then I will have to respectfully disagree. The argument that such entities are completely independent of their social, ecological, and other contexts does not seem particularly sustainable to me; indeed, I believe it has led both societies and corporations astray in the past (so, in practice, I don’t think it’s such a new idea). But I really don’t wish to argue that point any further; perhaps it’s a just a difference of emphasis, and I’m quite happy to let OOO-ists pursue it if only to see where they go with it.
2) Levi spends several paragraphs contesting a “perspectivalism,” or “hyper-perspectivalism,” according to which “objects are points of view that other objects have on them.” He gives the example of Nazis’ perspectives of Jews utterly defining those Jews (which suggests that these perspectives can be considered in separation from Jews’ perspectives of themselves, others’ perspectives on the Nazis, and so on). I certainly haven’t knowingly espoused such a view, and Chris Vitale’s point that “Saying that gays or jews ARE x, y, or z is NOT an issue of ontology” is, I believe, an appropriate response to Levi’s charge here.
Levi comes closer to my view when he accedes to a possible “plurality of perspectives on objects” and then suggests that perspectives might be able to “act” on objects. The problem I have with the idea that “perspectives [...] individuate entities” is that the word “perspective,” or “point of view,” is far too passive for the kind of event that is an “individuation.” In a process-relational perspective (and I think the word “perspective” is warranted here), the world is seen to be made up of events, encounters, actions, i.e. actual occasions through which an entity individuates or “subjectivates” in relation to an object or set of objects, which sets off ripples in the world around it by being taken up further by other subjectivations, and so on. The world, in this sense, is a rippling flow of movement, with actions setting off other actions and with each such moment including some element of “feeling,” “decision,” and “agency” on the part of any prehending subject.
Levi objects that in such a view “all the agency is placed in the object that has a perspective on other objects.” But this “all” isn’t much in itself, since it only describes a single actual occasion. (Recall that the “subject,” as Whitehead describes, only lasts for the extent of an actual occasion, that is, the fleeting moment of a single subjectivation; anything beyond that — any continuously sustained subjectivity — is carried forward through succeeding actual occasions and generally requires a high degree of coordination among many such parallel occasions.) The core of process-relational ontology is the idea that this kind of process (prehension/concrescence/etc.), this feelingful “taking account” of other things, is going on all the time in (and through) all things. If there were only two entities in the universe, one of them called “N” (for Levi’s proverbial Nazi) and one “J” (for his proverbial Jew), N’s prehension of J would be followed by J’s prehension of N, and so on — except that neither would maintain their identity completely over the course of further exchanges, since each exchange/encounter would change them in some way, shape, or form.
Since we are talking about human beings, however, or groups of human beings, we are talking about extremely complex entities within each of which — and outside of each of which — many things are going on at once all the time (with the boundaries between the “inside” and the “outside” being more or less porous depending on the kind of entity it is, its level of stabilization in relation to other entities, and so on). To reduce the Nazi-Jew example to a single act of prehension, as Levi appears to be suggesting, is really to miss the point.
But if we substitute the word “perspective” with “action” — and process-relational philosophy is all about action (events, encounters, etc.) — then isn’t it clear that such things have consequences, that Nazis can (and did) affect Jews, that Jews can (and did) fight back, and so on, and that the overall result of any such series of exchanges depends on what everyone who is present to them does? (That is not to say that everyone is equally present or has an equal capacity to affect any set of such exchanges, or, of course, that any action is as good as any other. What’s needed in any such analysis of actual historical or contemporary events is nuance and rigor in determining what the relevant relations are/were, who the “agents” might be with capacity to affect others significantly, what structural constraints shape their interactions, and so on. None of that is obviated by a process-relational understanding of things, events, actors, etc.)
3) Levi charges me with following a form of “kettle logic”:
He [i.e., Adrian] begins the post by arguing a) that OOO just repeats the basic framework of modern metaphysics, b) that OOO is really a process-ontology and therefore doing nothing different than what his process-relational metaphysics is doing, and c) that really these differences are just differences in the use of language.
Here, I would only ask that my comments be read with the specificity they entail. I didn’t argue that OOO in its entirety “just repeats the basic framework of modern metaphysics”. I argued that Levi’s point about independent-objects-entering-into-relations did not seem all that “new and different” to me, since it appears consistent with much in the western metaphysical tradition.
I did argue, and continue to think, that OOO shares much with process-relational metaphysics, differing primarily in its language, emphasis, and the “direction” (or perspective, if you like) from which it approaches the world. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun in assuming that these are the only, or primary, differences and in suggesting that they might not be as significant as they are. In part, this is because I’m interested in seeking common ground. In part, however, it’s because I believe that both OOO and process-relational ontology are interested in describing the universe in ways that acknowledge the vitality, agency, and feeling inherent in everything that makes up the world. Both are ontological projects, and both are democratizing in the sense that they seek to overcome a certain anthropocentric metaphysic.
For OOO, the things that make up the world are “objects” entering into relations (with the very label “object-oriented ontology” making it clear which of the two, objects or relations, are being emphasized). For process-relational ontology, the things that make up the world are experiential events or relational encounters, temporal processes that relate things to other things (temporary “subjects” to temporary “objects”) in a dynamic and iterative process through which the relational systems and networks that make up the universe are built (composed, routinized, habituated, negotiated, disrupted, transformed, etc.), while always remaining in motion. Since the event or encounter is central, and since we ourselves are evental processes, the actions we take matter.
Whether these differences between OOO and PRO are of minor or major significance, alas, depends on one’s perspective.
* * * * * * * * * *
Levi’s post on Tim Morton and The Darkest of Dark Ecologies further indicates some of this shared ground between our projects, and I’m always thrilled to see him moving in this direction. I can only agree with his Mortonian thoughts, such as
that we are perpetually embroiled in ecological relations that prevent us from saying or arguing that nature is something “out there”, “over there”, that we can go to on weekends when we wish to go rock climbing. Instead, what we have as a field of immanence.
(I know he doesn’t mean that we are literally “prevented” from saying these things, but, rather, something more like that this fact “makes it difficult to legitimately argue” that nature is something “out there” as opposed to “in here.” This idea is hardly new — it’s been much discussed and debated by ecotheorists for quite some time — but it still needs to be said, and if Morton and Bryant can reach new people with that message, more power to them.)
I love to read such passages as that “every strange stranger exceeds every horizon of relations within which it finds itself, functioning as a sort of ontological turbulence that has the potential to disrupt any mesh of relations,” and that dark ecology “attends as rigorously as possible to meshes of exo-relations or what I call regimes of attraction, while simultaneously emphasizing that every substance harbors the volcanic power of exceeding all its relations, of disrupting all ecologies, of overturning all harmonies.”
Are these passages literally true? Does every object harbor “the volcanic power … of disrupting all ecologies”? I don’t believe so for a moment. I, for instance, can disrupt a lot of things, but I can hardly register even the most miniscule effect on anything going on in the Andromeda Galaxy, let alone bring down the economy of China. But that’s not the point. These passages are, like Deleuze and Guattari (or Zizek) in their more exaggerated flights of intellectual provocation, great ideas, lovely, poetically viable thoughts (even if their meanings are relative to the contexts in which they land). And that, too, tells me there’s much common ground between us.
Now I’ve probably said too much again, and I suspect it may lead to another round of discussion and debate. I enjoy the discussion, but I know all too well how easy it is to say things in a blog without giving each word the weight of thought it deserves (having done that numerous times now), with the result that the words elude their destinations (rather as Derrida described in his brilliant Envois). With a new semester beginning and several writing deadlines now overdue (or close to it), I may, unfortunately, have to let these words make their way into the world without my defending them in further posts. If that happens, I hope my co-conversants don’t take it personally.
As I’ve said before, I’m eagerly awaiting Levi’s book The Democracy of Objects, and I would say the same about upcoming books from Chris Vitale, Graham Harman, and the other thinkers who’ve been kind enough to engage my thoughts in these exchanges (I’m still catching up to reading Tim’s latest/”prequel”). We may all be “strange strangers,” as Levi and Tim like to say, but I think we have also become close relatives now, too.
A little unpredictable perhaps, but relatives nonetheless, quite possibly even friends. Weird friends.
Even as we all continue to keep “watching for the card that is so high and wild we’ll never need to deal another,” as the stranger sang.
When he talks like this
you don’t know what he’s after.
When he speaks like this,
you don’t know what he’s after.
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger.