The debate between relational and objectological variants of speculative realism (for lack of a better characterization) has taken another of its more frenetic turns, which is both frustrating and promising — frustrating because it tends to descend into personally directed pejoratives when it does that, and because, as Steve Shaviro suggests, it seems to go around in circles, but promising because there are glimmers of helpful insight that arise in the process. At the risk of getting drawn in further, I will try to clarify one of those glimmers here.

In a series of five rapid-fire pieces posted over the course of less than ninety minutes (starting here), Chris Vitale delivered a quick volley of jabs and hooks. Forgive the boxing metaphor (a sport I dislike), but sometimes I feel like he and I are doing a kind of tag-team against Levi and Graham, with Graham standing back and letting Levi do the more nitty-gritty work, but strategically supporting him from behind at critical intervals. Steve, meanwhile, also pulls back from such frequent involvement on our side, for reasons he explains here, and which I appreciate and even agree with. (And in reality, of course, this debate isn’t as neatly delineable nor as thoroughly divided as my imagery implies. I’m just having a little bit of fun here.)

All that said, there’s an opportunity to clarify at least one important difference here, which may shed some light on what I mean when I say that the differences between OOO and process-relationism are differences of style, emphasis, inflection, and language. The crux may be whether such differences are merely secondary differences, or if they are in fact substantial.

Being vs. knowing

In a response to Chris, Levi summarizes a piece of the debate as follows:

Now, returning to Vitale’s monotonous question of “who decides”, I have always gotten the sense that he is an outlier in the debates between me, Graham, Bogost, Shaviro, Morton, and Ivakhiv. The six of us have been involved in an ontological discussion. All six of us are engaged in the question of how best to characterize true reality. And insofar as this debate is genuinely ontological, it hasn’t been a question of how we know or perceive but of how things really are. Is reality better characterized as relations, events, and processes (Ivakhiv, Shaviro), or is reality better characterized as objects independent of relations (Morton, Bogost, Harman, Bryant). I suspect that it wouldn’t occur to Ivakhiv or Shaviro to ask who decides whether a mouse as a mouse because they understand themselves to really be talking about the being of mice (whatever that might be, we all concede we’re not sure), rather than about human representations of mice. And since the sixth [six? -a.i.] of us understand our questions to be ontological and therefore independent of the existence of humans– which are contingent –we all recognize that questions of how we represent the being of mice is secondary to these ontological questions.

By contrast, it seems to me that Vitale is asking a very different set of questions. When Vitale asks who decides that a mouse is a mouse it’s clear that he hasn’t understood the nature of the debate and therefore is no participating in the discussion but is off dealing with some other set of issues. Here I’m reminded of a remark that Robert Duvall’s character makes in The Road. Viggo Mortensen and Duvall are talking about the horror of being “the last man” in the post-apocalyptic world in which they live. Mortensen’s character, echoing Vitale, asks “how would you know if you’re the last man?” To this Duvall’s character responds, “you wouldn’t know, you would just be the last man” (Shaviro, Ivakhiv, Bogost, Morton, Harman, Bryant).

This is a beautifully lucid passage, and I hate to muddy its waters, but I fear I might have to. I think the point Chris is making, and I agree with it in principle, is that reality is not accurately describable unless we include perception (or prehension), and therefore the naming of things, the semiotic referentiality that helps stitch reality together, in our description of that reality. For humans this involves words, thought it’s certainly not restricted to words. But for all things it involves something, some way of interpreting or “prehending” things, some event of meaning. The question is how to separate the being from the meaning (ontology from epistemology), and Chris and Levi are simply slicing that matter up very differently.

I agree with Levi that one can be the last man without knowing it. Being the last man would be a virtual possibility for as long as there are men. Once there are no more men, however — or women or other creatures that understand the concept “last man” — and at least until another entity comes along that would understand what “last man” means (or meant), not only is the last man gone, but so it the concept “last man”: it’s winked out of actuality, gone dormant (at best), becoming resurrectable perhaps as a rather different concept, in an indefinite future, that would pertain to the past race of “men” and not to the possible present or future. That is, unless men were to arise again, in which case the “last man” would retroactively no longer have been the last man (except relatively speaking, just as last night was not the last night). “The last man” is therefore a concept with a kind of life of its own (so to speak), and I agree with Chris that such entities — whether they are seen as Whiteheadian propositions, Mortonian hyper-objects, or some other kind of virtuality — must be taken into account in our description of reality. Each of us (the seven whom Levi names) probably does that a little differently, but it seems to me that the difference between “being” and “knowing” is more clearly delineated — more dualistically (I’ll explain below) — in Levi’s and Graham’s OOO than it is for either Chris or myself.

“Objectification”: bad move, or just a part of every move?

Levi then argues that Chris’s philosophy “unfolds within the field of an objectifying gaze, always reducing beings– whether they be events, processes, objects, or all of the above –to beings-for-gaze.” But I don’t see it that way. Reality, in Chris’s understanding (as I interpret it), is shot through with knowing, and knowing (or prehending) arises via modalities that might include gaze (sight), or touch, or smell, or echolocation, or language, or other forms of perception or sensation that we humans may never have even dreamed of. (I hope I don’t need to make explicit here that there is nothing anthropocentric about this conception of “objectification.”)

In a Whiteheadian processualist understanding, “objectification” occurs every moment because subjects are constantly passing over into objectness, i.e., becoming objects for other subjects. If there is “reduction” in this, it’s because a subject cannot encompass the entire universe; it must reduce from what’s available to it. But the object of a prehension is not identical to the subject whose objectivity is being prehended. Let me explain that, since it’s a difficult notion to grasp for readers less familiar with Whitehead.

Let’s pretend there is a universe consisting of only two entities. (Here I go making the kind of reductive abstraction that I generally dislike and distrust.) To play off Chris’s example, let’s make one a hobo and the other a rabbit. (Let’s ignore the question of who gets to call whom a “rabbit” or a “hobo.”) In a Whiteheadian account, since each actual entity is only real insofar as it prehends an other, the hobo (logically) would prehend the rabbit, or something about that rabbit, perhaps in relationship to something about the hobo herself. But this prehension of the rabbit in no way captures, let alone exhausts, the actual rabbit, who is simultaneously prehending the hobo (or some aspect thereof). The hobo-subject eludes the rabbit’s objectifying (prehensive) grasp just as the rabbit-subject eludes the hobo’s. In this two-element universe, this ongoing dance would continue indefinitely except that the creativity in each step would render the hobo a slightly different hobo every moment, and the rabbit a slightly different rabbit, until there are all manner of hobbits (and rabos) running around.

The prehension, then, is central to the process by which the hobo is hobo and becomes hobo/hobbit; and the same goes for the rabbit. Now multiply this two-term universe into the infinity of terms we have in our actual universe, run it for some 14 billion years (whatever that means, since years only came into existence when our Earth settled into its orbit around its sun, or since entities arose that could understand the concept of a year, depending on whether you’re slicing that with Levi’s Swiss army knife or Chris’s machete), and you get the incredibly complexly patterned and ever evolving universe we find ourselves in.

Levi ends that post with the following sentence, which I suspect all seven of us would agree on:

I have also argued that all objects translate one another in their own peculiar way [...]. In this regard, I claim no greater validity for my perspective, the biologist’s perspective, or Vitale’s nephew’s perspective. They are all translations. All I’ve ever argued is that beings cannot be reduced to their translations.

In his next post, however, Levi reiterates some of the same arguments about Whitehead’s relationism that repeatedly raise the hackles of Chris, Steve (I’m pretty sure), and myself. He does it through a very careful yet selective reading of excerpts from chapter 2 of Process and Reality. I don’t really want to get into an exegetical/hermeneutical dispute over Whiteheadian (sacred) texts, since that won’t resolve our dispute over reality even if it might resolve our dispute over Whitehead (which would take quite a bit of time). But let’s just look at the paragraph that clinches Levi’s argument about Whitehead’s apparent reduction of actual occasions (the real things making up the universe) into relations. Levi quotes Whitehead:

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process’. (23)

To this Levi replies:

While OOO certainly doesn’t reject the thesis that entities become, it does reject the thesis that entities are identical with the how of their becoming. I was produced by my parents but cannot be reduced to that history in any way, for example.

But nowhere, to my knowledge, does Whitehead suggest that an actual occasion — let alone a complex society of such occasions such as is “Levi Bryant” — is reducible to the history that preceded its becoming. He is saying, rather, that the actual occasion, that is, a single momentary flicker of experience, is, in this first analysis, disclosed “to be a concrescence of prehensions” (category x). The next paragraph reads as follows:

(xi) That every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the ‘subject’ which is prehending, namely, the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the ‘datum’ which is prehended; (c) the ‘subjective form’ which is how that subject prehends the datum.

In other words, reality, insofar as it consists of such actual occasions, is reducible to relational processes, relational activities or events, which are always activities involving a reaching out and drawing in, and which reconstitute the thing that does the reaching and drawing — as it does all the other things that are also engaged in that reaching out and drawing in, with change resulting from every such occurrence. Each of these is active, creative, agential, experiential (which, once you bring Peirce into the picture, also means semiotic). Each is irreducible to the conditions that preceded it, because each includes an openness, a decisive action, an agential maneuver that exceeds and pushes beyond its conditions. This is true for every actual occasion in the universe, and for every society (coordinated set) of such occasions.

Now the point for me, and I’m sure for Chris as well, is not what Whitehead says or doesn’t say. It’s that his ideas can be made to work quite well (with more or less tweaking, recombining with others, and so on) for the sorts of goals that OOO and SR seem to be espousing. Levi and Graham say they cannot, and point to passages like the one about “every entity pervad[ing] the whole world” that suggest something more mystical and incoherent. Chris, Steve, and I say they can and are working at demonstrating how. That debate won’t be resolved anytime soon.

A conclusion?

My conclusion from this last set of exchanges is that OOO, or at least Levi’s version of it (though I think it also applies to some extent to Graham’s work, at least his earlier work), would like to have a relatively clean separation between the being of things — what the universe is made of — and the knowing of things, or how we, or anyone, knows anything about those things. For process-relational philosophy, however, such a clean separation is not really possible because being is shot through with knowing and vice versa.

Positivist science has proceeded on the assumption that being and knowing can and should be kept separate, because our knowledge represents or (ideally) corresponds to reality but does not alter it. Social constructionism, on the other hand, has argued the opposite: that our knowledge of reality is either constructed by our representations (strong constructionism) or is in some measure dependent on our representations (weak or moderate constructionism). Exactly where OOO falls on this positivist-constructivist spectrum I’m not sure, since I know that Levi builds at times on Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism and that both he and Graham are quite sophisticated in their understanding of the relationship between ontology and epistemology.

OOO, however, seems to strongly follow the Meillassouxian critique of “correlationism,” which, to my mind, tends to conflate the argument that reality is dependent on knowledge with the argument that humans — as the knowing creature — are central to any and all kinds of knowing. Process-relationism rejects the latter belief as anthropocentric (and rather silly). But it retains, even insists on, the idea that being is shot through with knowing, i.e. with prehending. This is what the Whiteheadian claim that the universe consists of “experience all the way down” (and up) means. I agree with Chris that this makes it a form of “absolutizing and multiplying the correlation,” in Meillassouxian terms.

For Whiteheadian process-relational thought, there is some manner of correlation in everything; if there isn’t, that thing doesn’t exist. But as Steve points out,

things are never free of relations [and I think one could safely expand this to "correlations"]; but they are underdetermined by these relations, which is what preserves us from the utter suffocation of being, and allows room for what Meillassoux calls “the great outdoors.”

It’s those great outdoors that make things interesting. OOO and PR go about exploring them in different ways, but neither is clearly and obviously a better or more advanced way for doing that.

On that note, like Steve who feels energized from the conversation but irritated with himself (“as if I had eaten too much candy or popcorn”) after jumping in and joining the polemics, I also would like to refrain from jumping into this group bath more often than, say, once a week if I can help it. I always feel very clean immediately afterward, but not so clean once Levi and Graham show me the towel. (And it’s all too easy to argue over who dirtied it.)

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