Over at Naught Thought, Ben Woodard (sorry, Ben, for the earlier misspell) wants “to know what the Process/Relational folks think” of his thoughts about philosophies of process versus philosophies of objects or substances (or something like that). What follows is one quick and dirty way of thinking of a certain key difference between these two approaches.
I generally agree with Leon‘s and Adam‘s arguments that the differences have been overstated, particularly if one takes into account Levi Bryant’s admission that his objects are processes, or at least processual in nature. (Graham Harman is the OOO thinker who has made the most out of the differences between the OOO and PR camps, though Tim Morton’s characterization of the latter as “lava lampy materialism” has been, as Ben and others suggest, not particularly helpful. I’ll leave that aside; it’s been much discussed on this blog already, and elsewhere.)
For all the similarities, however, there is, to my mind, a basic difference in perspective. This is that the OOO position begins from the presumption of a world of stable, self-consistent substances, and then goes on to ask what those substances (objects) do, how they interact, what happens when a new thing enters into an existing array of things (the ecological question, for Levi), and so on. Process-relational thinkers, on the other hand, look at the world and see not objects but occurrences, events, relational processes.
To make that more tangible: when I look outside my window at home, I can see a lake (Champlain), mountains (the Adirondacks), darkening blue sky with an airplane crossing it, a few boats on the water, some trees, a family of bicyclists riding along the bike path down below, and so on.
Or, alternatively, I can look out the window and see myself looking and seeing the lake (etc.), hearing voices, etc. — and others looking and seeing me, responding to my voice (which just said “What is that thing down there on the lake?”), or responding to other things (the communicative chirpings of insects, and so on). I see seeings, hearings, sensings, perceivings, chirpings, resonations, etc. Some of these are “mine” and others may not be, and because they’re not “mine” I’m less sure of exactly what they are. But I have no reason to believe that they are not similar in nature to my sensings and perceivings and feelings. In other words, I see my seeing (hearing, feeling, etc.) things, and I see a world that sees and feels me, and that is itself made up of seeings and feelings.
These seeings, hearings, feelings, sensings, and so on — these prehensions — are the real things populating a process-relational world. They are its basic bits. Once this is accepted — and I agree that it does take a twist of mind to start thinking in these terms — we can start asking the more interesting kinds of questions: like, given that the basic stuff of reality is prehensive in nature (“takings-account of things”), how is it that some such prehensions manage to coordinate fairly large and complex processes (like a whole human bodymind communicating images and ideas to another such bodymind, or to a whole suite of others located around the planet)? How did these complex kinds of relational capacities arise? What are our possibilities for entering into and affecting other kinds of processes? Which processual moments are more open to collective engagement (e.g., to revolutionary transformations) than others?
I think if thinkers of process and becoming want to relate this to processes and powers and becomings, there needs to a rigorous account of the breaks, the actualizations, the triads or whatever it may be, that show the work of becoming without a human agent making the call, without the human carving out the individuated bits of the world.
If I’m understanding this correctly, I think Ben is getting at the Meillassouxian critique of “correlationism,” which claims that most modern philosophers have tried to understand the world only in terms by which the human mind (“a human agent making the call,” “the human carving out the individuated bits of the world”) is accorded metaphysical centrality. As I’ve argued before, this critique is correct (i.e., useful and appropriate) insofar as it points to the need to get beyond an anthropocentric understanding of the universe. But it is incorrect, from a process-relational perspective, if it assumes that we can arrive at an understanding of the world without understanding the understanding itself (i.e. processes of prehension, whatever form they take) as an essential — and in fact as the central — element of that world.
So, for process-relational thinkers, it’s not correlationism that’s the problem; it’s human-correlation-chauvinism (which is a variation of what Peter Singer and others call speciesism).
Again, for process-relational thinkers, in my understanding, the basic substance of the universe is experiential in nature. The basic “bits” of the world are not stable entities, but are experiential events (prehensions, feelingful takings-account-of-things). Given this, what needs explaining is how such events coalesce into sustained relational entities that develop and interact in particular kinds of ways — how the world develops stabilities, how we can enter into stabilities to bring about particular kinds of changes, new relations, and so on. (Or what bodyminds can do.)
Those stabilities that make up the organized forms of the world come in all forms. Some are lumpy, wavy, or lava lampy; others are crusty, crystalline, percussive, lightning-like, rhythmic, or netted, knotted, and webbed. And still others are altogether ghostly — for instance, because they’re beyond the prehensive capacities of bipeds like us except to the extent that we develop technical tools that can register their traces. Weather, I would say, is pretty lava-lampy on the whole; but climate is more ghostly (which is why climate change is so contentious).
I’m not particularly bothered by the critique of “lava lampiness.” It’s a fun game to associate certain ideas with retro cultural styles. It tells us little about what’s being critiqued (e.g., process-relational philosophy) and a lot about what those who deliver that critique are trying to disidentify themselves from. As a critique of process-relational ontologies, it just doesn’t hold, because those ontologies are interested in all the different kinds of worldlinesses that exist: not just the fluid, swelling crescendoes, but the trumpet blasts, the percussive dins, the rhythmic bass throbs and arpeggios, the twitters and chirps and wails and passion-soaked arias. Everything.
Ultimately, process-relational and object-oriented thinkers alike are interested in making sense of the universe — what it’s made of, how it works, and so on — in ways that (among other things) get beyond the anthropocentric (culturalist, etc.) focus of much twentieth-century philosophy. Our goals are not all that different, but the steps we take to get there are. And that’s okay by me, and certainly nothing to get upset about.