Levi Bryant has proposed a ceasefire on the objects/relations debate, and followed that up with a nice post calling for self-moderation of our more confrontational urges and for a more affirmative writing (and blogging) style that would render the form of our writing more consonant with its content. I’m all for the latter; it’s something I try to practice when I’m not too overcome by impatience (which is easy to get in the heatedness of online exchanges like these). As for a ceasefire, we aren’t of course at war, but stepping back and holding our metaphorical fire makes sense, and could even be timely given the agreements that Levi and I, at least, seem to have reached (which I’ll spell out in a moment). It’s become clear to me over the last year and a half or so of discussions with Levi that while he responds to things heatedly, he always comes back in friendly and generous demeanor, and I value that quality in him.

As for those points of agreement — anyone wanting to trace how these arose can read backwards from his reply to my comment to his reply to my reply to his reply to Chris’s replies to our replies to each other, probably starting with my attractions of process post (!!) — they are these:

(1) That Whitehead’s “prehensions” are very similar to Bryant’s “translations.” On “translations” Bryant writes:

1) that each and every entity translates the world in its own particular way, and 2) that the manner in which an entity translates another entity is never identical to the identity [entity?] translated. There are thus three dimensions to every translation: the translated, the translation, and the translator. The translated is the entity being translated. The translation is how that entity is translated. The translator is the entity doing the translating.

This first part applies to Whitehead’s prehensions as well, and the second is a virtual paraphrase of the definition of prehension that I had quoted from Whitehead:

(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.

I don’t at all mind using the Latourian term “translation” instead of “prehension,” and not only for the sake of mediating the differences, but because Latour is close to my heart as well.

(2) That Whitehead’s “societies” are rather similar to Bryant’s “objects.” (Societies are the persistent, self-sustaining entities that structure the Whiteheadian cosmos; they consist of interacting sets of actual occasions.) Tracing this agreement is a little more complicated, but if one follows Levi’s one-paragraph sub-section on “Fault lines and the exteriority of relations” in this post down through my comment(#5) and his reply (#8) where he states that “The last paragraph of your response here is what I’ve been saying,” it becomes clear that we agree that objects (in Levi’s terminology), or societies (in Whitehead’s), can persist in spite of the fact that their relational constituents (prehensions, translations) may change. (Perhaps the term “constituent” wouldn’t be the precise OOO characterization, but it’s close enough for now.)

There are differences, to be sure, but these are generative, productive differences that arise from the two approaches’ different starting points: the “experiential event” based universe of Whitehead versus the more substantialist universe of OOO. So while OOO’s translations (relations) are seen as distinct from the objects themselves, Whitehead sees prehensions as integral to societies, not in the sense that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between prehensions and societies, but in the sense that without prehensions societies couldn’t exist; they are necessary but not sufficient for the existence of a society.

Another difference that I think we will continue working on, each in our respective ways, has to do with the role of semiosis. But this, too, seems more a matter of emphasis than genuine disagreement. Following Peirce, I take semiosis to be integral to experience “all the way down,” and I rely on the growing body of work in biosemiosis, zoosemiosis, and related fields to make this case. Levi, with respect to the linguistic and semiotic, argues that OOO advocates a shift in the understanding of language and meaning from “unilateral determination” (with an anthropocentric reference point) to a Latourian kind of “composition.” This is an idea I can get fully behind as well, and it’s one that’s compatible with a broadened, Peircian understanding of semiosis. (In fact, I once wrote an article advocating a shift from “deconstruction” to “decomposition” based on more or less the same rationale for which Latour later introduced the term “composition.” That piece, delivered at the founding conference of the World Forum on Acoustic Ecology and published in Musicworks 64, isn’t available digitally, though the music that accompanied it is (warning: wma file, or available from my music page), but it’ll be reworked into Ecologies of Identity once I get back around to that manuscript.)

So while there remain productive differences between our approaches, these are not as fundamental as they sometimes appear, and they make our conversations stimulating. Those conversations will, I think, be even richer once Levi’s Democracy of Objects and Chris Vitale’s, Steven Shaviro’s, and my current work are out in published forms.

With that, I’m heading back to grading (procrastination is all too easy), and then writing.

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