(This is a slightly revised version of the piece I posted a few hours ago…)

I haven’t posted about the debate between object-oriented and process-relational ontologies for a while here, in part because I said I’d had enough of that debate.

But the more I read of Levi Bryant’s work — both in Democracy of Objects (which he’s kindly sent me a pre-publication version of) and on his blog — the more convinced I am that there isn’t much of a debate, at least not over fundamental and incommensurable differences, between his version of OOO and my understanding of PR ontology.

In a recent post, Levi quotes Jeremy Trombley citing Levi and following up with a question:

“…sensual objects are the way in which one real object encounters another real object. That real object encountered, however, is withdrawn from the real object that encounters it.”

Then do we ever encounter the real object? Can we ever know it? Or can we only hope to know the sensual objects that exist within ourselves? How is this different from correlationism? Maybe I’m missing something…

To this Levi responds:

Nope, Jeremy isn’t missing a thing. As I understand it– and maybe others disagree with me –the OOO critique of correlationism is not a critique that would finally deliver us to the real itself or things-in-themselves. It is not an epistemological realism. OOO’s critique of correlationism is a critique of the privileging of human correlation. Put differently, OOO multiplies correlations, it doesn’t get rid of correlations. There is the way humans correlate to the world, bats correlate to the world, rocks correlate to the world, aardvarks correlate to the world, hurricanes and tornadoes correlate to the world, social systems correlate to the world, dust mites correlate to the world, etc., etc., etc. Another way of putting this would be to say that OOO strives to take up the point of view of other entities on the world. A number of entities correlate to the world in rather uninteresting ways, but a number of entities correlate to the world in very interesting ways. This is what is meant by “second-order observation”. In second-order observation we are not observing another object, but are rather observing how another object correlates to the world about it. We are striving to adopt the point of view of that object. Rather than encountering the object “for ourselves”, we are striving to observe how the object encounters the world “for itself“. What is it like to be a bat?

The key line here is that “OOO multiplies correlations.” This, I think, qualifies as a Eureka moment. It is what process-relationalists have been saying for a while now (see, e.g., Chris here and me here, here, and elsewhere): that the problem with what Meillasoux calls “correlationism” is not correlationism itself but the privileging of the human correlation over and above others. All things relate to other things and cannot “get at” the “real” apart from those relations.

In other words, there is nothing “wrong” with correlationism; it’s a fact of the universe. If anything, it’s a good way of capturing the ultimate interdependence between ontology and epistemology. No matter how hard we try, no matter with what recourse to mathematics or anything else, we cannot know the universe as it is apart from our ways of knowing it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try; any good Peircian will tell you that progress at knowledge is possible and worth working towards — otherwise why bother with all this ontological speculation (a.k.a. Speculative Realism, etc.)? It’s just that we will never eliminate ourselves from the process.

Well, let me backtrack just a little (never say never). I’ve written about how we can never know what the human is capable of, just as no other entity can know what it is ultimately capable of. So I’m not prepared to entirely write off some final, grand, ultimate Omega Point meeting/collapse/festival at which knower and known become one. Nondual awareness is possible, I believe (as the Buddhists, mystics like Ken Wilber, and others assert) — at least relatively speaking, if that makes any sense (it is, after all, an awareness) — and that means that progress toward some nondual collective merging is also conceivable. But let’s leave that aside right now.

I’m sure that most process-relationists would stop short of saying, as OOO-ists insist, that there is no contact whatsoever between entities, but this is because process-relationists would define “contact” in different terms than OOO-ists. For OOO, recall, there are two kinds of objects: real objects, which don’t contact other real objects, and sensual objects, which do contact both real and sensual objects. The latter are the mediators, or intermediaries (and I’m not exactly sure which, if you want to follow Latour’s distinction between those two terms).

OOO-ists’ desire to reduce the things in the universe to one kind, called “objects” — i.e., to arrive at an ontology that would treat all things equally, on an ontologically level playing field — has resulted in the recognition that the very rules regulating relations between those things require at least one other kind of object. Since objects withdraw from each other, something else has to be posited that doesn’t withdraw, and that mediates between the withdrawing objects: ergo, sensual objects as opposed to real ones.

Process-relationists tends to speak in different terms because we define the basic “furniture of the universe” as made up not of objects but of something else: processes, events, prehensions, or something of the sort. Working up from there, we build up an ontology according to which such events (etc.) lead to patterned, organized, and persisting/unfolding process-entities — such as the things in the world that’s familiar to us and to other participating observers. (This is an onto-epistemology of participant-observation, or really of enaction.)

But this also requires recognizing that there are more than one kind of event. For instance, in the Peircian-Whiteheadian ontology I’ve been working with, one must recognize that there are two basic kinds of event-entities. The first is the kind that actualizes (i.e., seconds) a firstness, an event of the order that Bateson refers to as Pleroma. The second is the kind that thirds a secondness, which is an event of the order that Bateson refers to as Creatura. The first kind is a mere encounter between two processes; the second is a registration of its significance for a third (which could be for one of the two processes as experiencing).

There is, in other words, semiosis that arises out of presemiotic events — whcih sounds a lot like the OOO differentiation between real and sensual objects, no doubt. Differentiating between the two is what allows us to make sense of meaning (sensual objects?) as opposed to mere occurrence (real objects?).

For process-relationists all of this is perceived to be more of a flow, or more precisely a percolation, of things making up the universe, moment by moment. As I’ve said before, this just means that we (PRO) are coming at things from a different direction than they (OOO). The point of arrival, is not that different, at least not between Levi’s onticology and process-relational thought as I understand it. And I think that the categories themselves (OOO versus PRO, or whatever) will ultimately be shed in favor of other, more finely tuned distinctions.

Just my leap of faith there.


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