Just a few quick responses to Levi Bryant. Levi writes:
1) entities are nonetheless patterned or structured despite their becoming, 2) they are unities, and 3) they cannot be submerged in or exhausted by their relations. Relations can always be detached. Objects can always enter into new relations. [. . .] if you hold that entities are constituted by their relations then you lose that excess by which it is possible to account for how anything new can enter the world.
I (speaking/looking through my process-relational lens) can agree with all of this, more or less. I would not say that relations can become detached, since relations are processes that are entered into; they are attachments, however temporary. By “relations can always be detached” I’m guessing Levi means that one set of attachments can detach itself from another, or that something that enters into relation with something else can later leave that relation. I agree. I enter into relation with a bus that takes me to work at a higher speed than my feet could manage, but I don’t stay related to the bus for all time henceforth. Or I enter into relation with a pair of skis that take me safely down a mountain at high speed. Those relations have changed me: I’ve learned to move a certain way with the skis; I learned to buy a ticket and deposit it in the ticket box, saying “hello” to the bus driver, and then watching the road for the stops to pass; and so on. But in principle I could unlearn those things, even if it might take deep hypnosis or a traumatic accident to do that.
And since I have never (to my knowledge) argued that entities are fully constituted by their relations (which is what I think Levi means), I have no problem with the final sentence. I would say that entities are constituted in and through their relations, but that there is an excess, or an openness, built into things, which is the open prehensive cognizance that (self-) constitutes. (With Tim we might agree to call this rigpa or some other Buddhist term, “empty in essence, cognizant in nature, unconfined in capacity.”)
In his next post, Levi writes:
it doesn’t follow from this that life constitutes the substantiality of our poor mouse. Life is just a quality– a local manifestation –that those substances known as meeces might happen to actualize.
Now I realize all of this is very strange.
I completely agree, at this point (especially with the “strange” bit). But it gets stranger still, with people and animals coming back from the dead and Levi accusing me of calling his mum a zombie. (They don’t call them mummies for nothing.) I love it. (And it’s all in great fun. Please read it.)
As I’ve argued, objects are perpetually disintegrating or fighting entropy. All Ivakhiv’s point entails is that our poor former mouse has now become a plurality of substances.
The poor fellow has stopped fighting entropy. At least he’s stopped fighting it himself, but he still has his plurality of substances left to do it for a while longer in the hope that he might come back from the dead to win the battle. (No problem there either.)
At this point Levi goes ecological (which I always love, too; the lovefest continues).
In these debates I’ve tried to argue that the concern of ecology is not relation per se, but rather those relations that make a difference. If we look at the practice of ecotheorists (as opposed to their theorizations of their practice), we see them exploring not relations as such, but rather what local manifestations take place when relations are shifted. For example, the ecologist is interested in what changes or local manifestations occur when natural gas is released into a particular creek or drinking water.
Nodding in agreement… After all, the things that interest us (ecotheorists) are the relevant and troubling shifts, the differences that make differences (Bateson), the matters of concern (Latour).
Yet here what we’re interested in is a split between virtual proper being and local manifestations, or the demonic powers unleashed when a substance enters into new relations. Process relational thought ends up obscuring all this by virtue of treating objects as relational from the outset and through the vacuous claim that everything is related to everything else, turning us away from the experimentalist perspective that asks us to attend to what local manifestations occur when these relations come into being.
Process relational theory does treat objects as relational from the outset. They are formed out of relations (e.g., I began as a result of relations between my mother and my father, and every step of my development was relational), and they are not possible without relations. An object that would be entirely relationless, entirely separate from any and all relations, would, for all intents and purposes, not exist. (Okay, it would be a nonexistent object, an object of the nonexistent sort. Perhaps it would neither exist nor not exist. But I don’t have the patience of Nagarjuna to think through what that might mean.) Even an unconscious object, such as me when I sleep, maintains various kinds of relationalities that keep it going. But then I don’t believe that my consciousness is an object; I believe it’s part of a relation that I enter into. The exact origin point of a new relationally constituted entity that becomes its own persistent, developing, and self-constituting thing (think beginning of fetal life) is a little mysterious to me, and that doesn’t bother me (though it’s an issue for anyone intended to build a fail-safe, fool-proof and air-tight ontology, and remains an issue, I think, for Whitehead, but also probably for OOO). So I’m not sure how that obscures anything.
As for “the vacuous claim that everything is related to everything else,” I’ve agreed before that that’s a vacuous claim and that I don’t really believe it. In this post addressing Levi and Tim Morton on Buddhist, for instance, I wrote:
Where we need to tread very carefully, to my mind, is in extending Buddhism’s relationality from a specific one — which says that every thing is conditioned by causes other than itself, and in turn serves as a cause conditioning other things — to a kind of generalized principle of all-encompassing relationality, which would say that everything is related to everything else, equally and in all ways. The latter is true only in the sense that we can (analytically) connect everything to everything else if we trace the causes backwards or forwards via other things to other things, and so on indefinitely. This is what the theory of evolution, essentially, says: that every life form on Earth can be traced back to a single origin point, and that therefore every organism is related to every other one. If there is a law of cosmic evolution, that law is the same. But it is not true in the sense that everything in the universe is directly causally related to everything else, and certainly not in the sense that everything is equally related to everything else.
Incidentally, I think we’ve debated all the points in the current flap several times before (for instance here, here, here, here, here, here and here, and sorry for mixing apples and oranges on that list – you’ll see what I mean if you click on them). At this point, I should probably stop blogging about any of it and write it all up into something people can hold in their hands and read, and then point to it and say “They just haven’t read anything I’ve written.”
I certainly agree with Levi that we should not “turn[...] away from the experimentalist perspective that asks us to attend to what local manifestations occur when these relations come into being.” In fact, I think we basically agree on nearly everything now, with the differences being only of emphasis, style, and terminology (as I’ve argued for a long time, though it keeps eliciting howls of protest for some reason).
And incidentally, I like Bogost’s idea that objects are composed of operations. I’ll have to read more of his work.