Tag Archive: relationalism

conversions & convertibles

(I try not to edit things once they’re published, but I couldn’t resist adding a Chevy Impala to this blog.)

It may not quite be Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, as Graham Harman’s blog post title suggests, but Chris Vitale has clearly had a change of heart, a dropping of resistance that’s resulted in a much warmer embrace of object-oriented ontology. The latter has now become, for Chris, a “fellow-traveller,” a compatible and friendly sparring partner at the very least, and certainly no longer an opponent. The difference between OOO and the process-relational views Chris, Steve Shaviro, I, and others have espoused is not one of radical incommensurability but one of emphasis, language, and not much more (as I’ve said myself, for instance here.)

In a series of two posts, Chris announces that change of heart — in terms that remind me a little of Tim Morton’s actual conversion on the road to Damascus — and then fleshes out the main differences and how they are collapsing. What follow are my initial thoughts on Chris’s posts. I’ll be out of commission for the rest of the day and most of tomorrow, and these thoughts are written quickly and imperfectly.

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I’ve been meaning to catch up on the discussions over Buddhism and objects/relations, Slavoj Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” and related topics, which have been continuing on Tim Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, Jeffrey Bell’s Aberrant Monism, Skholiast’s Speculum Criticum Traditionis, and elsewhere. I haven’t quite caught up, but here are a few quick notes on some of what’s been said…

1) Michael at Archive Fire rightfully points to the virtues of Jeffrey Bell‘s lucidly articulated point that

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For any jam band lovers out there (for some reason, the term has always made me think of “ham”; I guess it’s the French jambon that comes to mind), here’s a set of clips that remind us that the genre peaked about forty years ago. (H/t to Gary Sauer-Thompson at Conversations.) It’s actually from 38 years ago, but I think the version of “Dark Star” that’s on “Live Dead” is much better — less flat and more dynamic, graced by a more central Jerry Garcia and much more mellifluous keyboard than the clunky one here. But I guess it was just that kind of August day this time around. For those who think it all sounds like a far-too-endless stew of mushy and blandly flavored noodling — and whose suspicions are confirmed in the listless version of “El Paso” this turns into part-way through the fourth clip — there is a moment in the Live Dead version that demonstrates it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. (This 1969 version comes closer to the Live Dead version, though I can only see Part 1 online, so it’s missing the moment in question. But taken as a long moment, it’s all still a pretty good one…)

Tom Verlaine used to lament that Television’s “Marquee Moon” was often compared to the Grateful Dead. This 2005 concert version displays both the reasons why it was (especially if you like the Dead) and why it shouldn’t have been (if you don’t) — though at around the 3-minute mark of this second part they show that they still can’t duplicate what happened in that studio in 1977. (Compare, for instance, with the 9-minute mark of the original.) But they do their best to recover.

All of which brings me to relationalism, ecology, earth jazz, and the summer solstice. (Warning: this gets long and complicated, and if you’re not interested in the objects-relations debate, you might just want to skip through most of it. Just don’t miss the Miles Davis clip at the bottom.)

If there’s a musical demonstration of relationalism, and by extension (as Skholiast points out) of ecology, it’s the kind of improvised music that the Dead are supposed to have excelled at (and occasionally did). The universe gives rise to many wondrous entities in its long history of spontaneity, relational responsiveness, habit-formation, and form-building. The habits start as rhythms, melodic chirps that turn into territorial refrains and calls, and that gradually maneuvre their way into verse patterns, melodies, harmonies, polyrhythms. Distinct songs develop for particular purposes and gradually get freed from those purposes, taken up into improvisational routines and performances, some of which crystallize into larger-scale architectonics, but only ever temporarily.

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I’m on the road, and haven’t been able to keep up with the continuing exchange that’s now drawn in Steven Shaviro and Chris Vitale in addition to Levi and Graham, with side comments from Peter Gratton and others. That despite Graham’s call for a “cease fire,” which elicited some spirited responses from Levi, Steven, and Chris.

For me, some of Levi’s most beautiful writing comes when he gets personal. The first few paragraphs in his reply to the cease fire call are among the peak of the whole discussion, because they get at why he and probably all of us, to some extent, engage in this form of public debate:

“Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue. [. . .]

“I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. [. . .]

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a symmetrical peace?

I should probably resist from critiquing blog posts, since these rarely capture one’s considered thoughts the way print articles and books do. So rather than replying in detail to Graham’s rejoinder to my previous post, I’ll agree to the cease-fire he proposes (though I hope we weren’t really sniping at each other!). At least after making one last point, which I’ll do by creatively misquoting his penultimate paragraph, specifically by inverting the object-relation duality:

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I’m looking forward to Graham Harman’s forthcoming review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and I’m glad to see that this discussion between object-oriented philosophy and Bennett’s vibrant materialism (and, by extension, the other theoretical impulses she draws on, which this blog, for the most part, enthusiastically shares) is getting underway. That discussion will no doubt continue over the summer as this blog, Critical Animal, Philosophy in a Time of Error, and maybe a few others engage in a collective reading of Bennett’s book. (Perhaps that should be followed by a group reading of Tim Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought.)

While Graham’s argument that relationism is “a spent force” is obviously not one that will convince the growing number of scholars drawing in productive ways on relational theories (Whitehead’s, Deleuze’s, Bergson’s, Simondon’s, Latour’s, Serres’s, Stengers’s, et al), he’s entitled to make that case. He summarizes his objection here in this way:

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the remainder…

For an indication of why I’m interested in the “more” that object-oriented philosophers grapple with, the “remainder” beyond what can be accounted for of an object or phenomenon through relational accounts, I thought it would be appropriate to share a few paragraphs from my 2001 book Claiming Sacred Ground.

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Graham Harman replies here and here to my last contribution, and Paul Reid-Bowen joins in with an interesting and original take on the debate at Pagan Metaphysics. I’ll try to keep my reply to both of them fairly brief in what follows.

Graham writes that “You can’t find the cane toad by summing up all the effects it currently has and receives from all other entities.” I agree. To find the cane toad you would have to interact with it, and even then you would only find what you were capable of finding. If, theoretically, you could interact with it in such a way that you would be able to observe and summarize all its effects on and from all other entities, including the effects that manifested over the time of your observations (since these take time and, to some extent, always affect what is being observed) and all of its internal relations (which include its potentials or virtualities carried over from the past), then I suspect you would have come as close as possible to “finding the cane toad.”

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A glimpse of Armillaria ostoyae, said to be the world’s largest organism (whatever that means)

Replying to me here, Graham Harman explains his objections to relational ontologies, arguing that they fail to make a distinction between the “two sorts of relations” in which an entity is involved. These are not “the famous ‘internal’ and ‘external’ relations,” but are what he “somewhat whimsically” calles the “domestic” and “foreign” relations of an object. (I like this distinction, though I’m not sure how it’s different from internal and external relations.)

GH: “Surely Adrian doesn’t want to claim that the cane toad is a set of all its relations? If Mars were five inches further along in its course than it currently is, would the cane toad be a different cane toad than it is now?”

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Levi Bryant’s detailed and generous replies to my critical queries, both in the comments section of this post and at Larval Subjects, and Graham Harman’s replies here (and in an e-mail exchange) have helped me get a much clearer sense of where the main differences lie between their respective “object-oriented” positions and my relational view. In the process, I’ve been once again impressed with both of these philosophers’ willingness to engage with those who disagree with them, and to do that publicly, and practically at the speed of (digital) light. Here I just want to summarize what I see as the main difference between an object-oriented account of the world and a process-relational account.

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