Tag Archive: relationalism


(This post spun off from the last, where I concluded by noting the increasing amount of debris out in the upper atmosphere. Somehow I couldn’t resist pulling that image into the vortex of ecopolitics and the objects-relations debate, which is carrying on at hyper tiling, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Larval Subjects, and elsewhere.)

Like the tail of a dog who, in his immersed excitedness at any signs of life, notices movement behind himself and lurches back to catch it, humanity’s material ecologies are wagging behind us in various ways: from reports of melting glaciers and impending crashes of the ocean’s fish stocks to images of the Pacific Trash Vortex, space junk accumulating in the atmosphere (anyone remember the rains of space debris on Max Headroom?), the mountains of e-waste accumulating around the world (which, in our future history, take over the terrestrial landscape around the time of Wall-E), and the repositories of toxic and radioactive waste that dot the landscape all around us, though we rarely see or think about them. Sooner or later, the trash will hit the fan, somewhere at least, if not everywhere at once.

Our social ecologies work the same way, with “blowback” to social injustice arriving in the form of terrorism and other forms of political violence. If, as I’ve argued before, it’s better to think in threes than in twos — with our material ecologies (“nature”) and social ecologies (“culture”) supplemented and filled in with mental or perceptual ecologies, the actual interactive dynamics out of which the material and the social, or the “objective” and the “subjective,” continually emerge — then what is blowback in the perceptual dimension?

That’s easy: it’s guilt, bad dreams, and the other affective undercurrents that plague our “unconscious.” These are our responses to the eyes of the world (human and nonhuman). It’s what makes us feel that things aren’t right. It’s the traumatic kernel of the Real, which Lacan (and, somewhat differently, Buddhism) place at the origin of the self, but which in a collective sense is coming back to haunt us globally. (I’ve made the case for a psychoanalytically inspired ecologization of Fredric Jameson’s political symptomatology of culture here and here.)

We misperceive the nature of the world for the same reasons that we misperceive the nature of the self. Every social (and linguistic) order interpellates its members somewhat differently, but, over the course of humanity’s long history, most such orders have incorporated into that process some sense of responsibility to more-than-human entities or processes. In whatever way they were conceived — as spirits or divinities, or in terms of synthetic narrative or conceptual metaphors (life-force, the Way, the path, the four directions, etc.) — these have generally borne a crucial connection to what we now understand as ecology. Modern western capitalism has fragmented these relations, setting us up individually in relation to the products of a seemingly limitless marketplace, but leaving us collectively ecologically rudderless. So even if scientists, the empirical authorities of the day, tell us we’re fouling our habitat, we haven’t really figured out how to respond to that, at least not at the global levels where many of the symptoms occur.

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Reading Levi Bryant’s blog sometimes feels like having a brilliant storm of white-hot thought rain down upon one’s backyard garden, the shoots struggling to stay vertical, but rendered that much stronger after the rain. There are wonderful passages in his recent musings on ethics, relations, objects, and ontology. From Ethical Etymologies: Thinking Out Loud (Always Dangerous), for instance:

“Where today we tend to think of character almost exclusively as a moral or ethical property, character should probably be thought as “power” (in the sense of “capacity” or “ability”, or what a thing can do), or “nature” (in the sense of the “nature of a thing”, not in the sense of φύσις). In this respect, ἦθος is closely bound up with the Greek concept of arete or “excellence” (ἀρετή), which would later become the Latin virtus, which, importantly, has connotations of power (in the sense of capacity or ability) and strength. Again, it is sad how degraded the concept of virtue has become worn or degraded. The key point not to be missed with respect to the Greek concept of ἀρετή is that ἀρετή is not an exclusively human property. All entities, for the Greeks, have their “ἀρετή“, and in many respects this ἀρετή constitutes the proper being of an entity. Thus, for example, the ἀρετή of a hawk is its keen eyesight, its sharp talons, its ability to fly swiftly, and so on. The ἀρετή of a tree might be its sturdiness, the manner in which it reaches to the heavens, its ability to resist heavy winds, and so on. The Greeks, it would seem, were Deleuzian ethologists well before Deleuze, defining entities in terms of their powers, capacities, or excellencies, rather than qualities.”

What follows are some comments on Levi’s response to my concerns (which he identifies correctly) about object-oriented ontology’s premise of the absolute independence of objects from each other.

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The objects versus relations debate has revved up again over at Larval Subjects, in the commentary responding to Levi Bryant’s Questions about the possibility of non-correlationist ethics.

The debate, as I would describe it, circles around the following question: If we agree that traditional philosophy has been too centrally premised on the relationship between humans and the world at the expense of the world itself (with all its other things, beings, entities, relations, and whatnot), then is it better to promote a philosophy that focuses on objects, that is, not just on human subjects/objects but all objects, or one that focuses on relations between things (subjects, objects, networks, processes, whatever)? The first approach is taken by object-oriented philosophers like Bryant, Graham Harman, and others; the second by relationists, such as those influenced by Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, and Spinoza, among others (though the exact list depends on whom you ask; a few recent and recommendable books in this latter tradition are Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, John Protevi’s Political Affect, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter).

Since I’ve responded to Levi’s points on his blog, I’ll restrict myself here to addressing in greater depth the question raised by Levi, Scu, and anxiousmodernman (in their comments) about the politics of relationalism.

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Keeping up with Graham Harman means continually being tempted to respond to him, and since he doesn’t allow comments on his blog, for reasons I completely understand, I can only hold my tongue or flap it here. (Or I can do the respectful thing and write up a lengthier and more in-depth argument, but that would take more time and energy than I currently have. For that reason, I’m not asking for or expecting a response from Graham, but since he reads this blog, he may as well know that I need more convincing.)

So, a quick reply to his “response to Shaviro” blog post:

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One of my (largely dormant) pet projects over the years has been to document and theorize anonymous, self-decomposing artworks made in collaboration with nature and time. These works are creative engagements with environments — often simple rearrangements of physical materials (rocks, wood, found pieces of scrap metal or discarded trash, and the like) — by individuals, designed or improvised with materials at hand, working with others less by design than by happenstance. They can be found in outdoor public spaces, wooded ravines and forests, wild patches of cities and countryside, abandoned industrial sites. Remaining little documented, they appear not to exist at all except when directly encountered, which is something that usually happens by chance.

Even calling them ‘artworks’ can be problematic, since they may not be created with the intent of being recognized as art, or made by ‘artists’, and certainly not as part of the ‘art system’ (as Bourdieu, Luhmann, or Stallabrass would define it). Insofar as they assert the (past) presence of those who have crafted them, they can be read as forms of graffiti, or a kind of resistant creativity akin to the guerrilla gardening movement of urban space activists. Marking out a space as different and significant, but leaving behind little direct evidence of the intent underlying them, they may convey an aura of mystery, playfulness, childlike wonder, or the more serious character of a sacred space or shrine, but until they are turned into a public topic (as has occurred with the fairy houses on Monhegan Island, where I just spent a few days, and about which more in a moment), they remain ambiguous and a little unplaceable within the systems of things that make up the recognized world. They are anomalous or ambiguous objects, which makes them relevant to the recent discussion here of objects versus relations.

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relations vs. objects, part x

I’m glad to see that Steven Shaviro and Levi Bryant have stepped into the fray of the debate over the relative virtues of object-centered versus relation-centered ontologies. (Among others, e.g. kvond, Peter Gratton, Graham Harman of course, and see the commenters to Levi’s posts on Harman and Whitehead). With some of the best blogging philosophers going at it, I’m content to sit on the sidelines and watch things unfold. To be fair, Shaviro and Harman, as well as Bryant, have been going at this kind of thing for a while now, but it’s nice to think that my review of Harman’s book helped to catalyze a little bit of the current flare-up. It’s fine to wait around for the print publication of Shaviro’s and Harman’s critiques of and responses to each other, but blogs are so much quicker at quenching one’s philosophic thirst. (And it’s nice to see Whitehead taking a more central place in this discussion.)


The level of discussion following my review/critique of Harman’s Prince of Networks, along with Harman’s brief but welcome response, has encouraged me to post a few more thoughts about this difference between “relationalism” and “objectology” (my term for a central part of his object-oriented philosophy or ontology), that is, between a view that holds that the world is constituted by “relations all the way down”, and a view that admits the world is characterized by relations (of all sorts) but asserts that each entity has an essential non-relational essence. (Thanks to Mark Crosby for his eloquent summary of the dispute in the comments to the last post.) Harman’s reply raises a couple of issues I’d like to address at a little more length.

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