A Challenge to OOO: Prove me wrong, or, write Summa Contra Processis-Relationalis!

I’d like to pose a challenge: Can OOO answer process-relationalist criticques? And in a manner which shows, in clear, direct language, like one would use to speak to non-specialists, how the answer of process-relationalist critique by OOO flows logically from OOO’s fundamental axioms on how the world works?

I’ve yet to see this, and after nearly a year of debates, and tons of time spent reading OOO texts looking for something like this, I’d like to throw down the gauntlet. If it exists, please cite me the location of the text. If it doesn’t, someone, please write Summa Contra Processis-Relationalis. Wouldn’t the philosophical debate today benefit from such a text, and wouldn’t this further the OOO cause as much as anything else? What a useful text to have around!

And how much fun to write! It could even be done in dialogue form, like in days of old. ‘Yet now I hear my processualist opponent say, ‘but what about x’, and I answer, ‘yet this and this flow from the founding axioms of OOO’, etc.

Move from axiom to argument to the critiques and how to defuse them, along with likely objections. Make it serious yet clear, and in language anyone can understand. Such a document clearly doesn’t exist yet, but it would be great if it did.

Why do I think this is necessary? The reasons are below. [And for more, see Adrian's excellent follow-up, and elaboration of the questions posed to OOO]

*          *          *

A few observations on the recent discussions (Graham, Tim, Adrian, myself, Gary, mostly on lavalamps) regarding OOO and relations. Graham Harman has recently spoken of these things ‘going in circles’ and ‘not going anywhere,’ and I’ve heard this said on both sides of the relations-process/objects debates in the blogosphere that have gone on, in many ways, for now over a year.

My question is why – why does it seem that things go in circles and never go anywhere? Now I must admit, my hypotheses here are those of a process/relation guy, and should be seen as such. I realize that some of what follows is likely to cause offense, but it is not meant personally, or in regard to any particular person. My sense is there is actually a group dynamic going on. And so, that would mean, it is hoped, that it can’t be personal. That said, I suspect there will be lots of pissed off souls after I write this, and I apologize in advance, but I think some of this may be necessary to get our debate to actually stop being circular.

My sense is that there is almost something cult-like is going on with OOO. The talk of conversions. The rhetoric of ‘seeing the light,’ the fact that ‘becoming’ an ‘OOO-person’ is often depicted as a satori-like experience that comes from above. And any criticism is dealt with as if an attack, and often of a personal nature, rather than serious intellectual critique.

I know it is so exciting to have a ‘new philosophy’ again, after so many years of French post-structuralists being the only game in town, with post-68 France still seeming to dominate philosophical debate in the 2011 ‘(non-analytic) global English philosophyscape.’ We need something new to believe in, and Zizek and Badiou have been transitional figures. But can we make a new philosophy, for us and by us and for our age?

I think so many are hungry for this. But wanting it isn’t the same as doing it. For a new belief to be philosophy, it needs argument, no?

Now perhaps I am wrong. I am more than happy to be proved wrong. And that’s my wager – prove me wrong! Of course, the adherants of OOO may say, we don’t need to prove anything. And of course, that’s true. But if OOO is to be a philosophical rather than mystical movement, then it needs do this by way of reasoning and argument.

And my sense is that despite a lot of interest in OOO, this interest has created a feeling of inevitability – if interest is increasing, that means OOO must be right, and will eventually be seen as such. Now, if OOO were poetry or art, interest is precisely what means it speaks to more people. But for something to be a philosophy, one would hope it needs to play the game of answering critics.

What do I mean? Whenever critics from the relation-process side of things raise points, rather than address these points in a clear way which shows how OOO’s founding axioms lead to a recasting of the process-relational questions, there is a repetition of mantras, or what seems like a series of excuses. Yet axioms need to be linked to arguments, no? But the responses often sound more like this: ‘Go read my previous works again, the answers are there, you’ve just gotta find them, but I don’t have the time to point them out to you, or to say precisely where you should look. Or you’re just being personal. Or you just haven’t understood, but in time you hopefully will. Or ‘objects don’t have to do that, away with that!’, or other fun or snarky yet not fully serious responses . . .

But I don’t think OOO has ever replied to the basic process-relation critique. Which is why I want to lay down a gauntlet of sorts. Why not write a work – a long blog post, or an essay, or a book, that specifically works to deal with these issues? That way, anytime someone brings up these issues, there is a set of responses that really deals with these things head on.

Now I don’t think such a work will satisfy all sides and all questions. But I think there could very well be a response to relation-process critiques that we relation-process folks could at least say, ‘well, we respectfully disagree, but we see this as a perfectly sound set of arguments, even if we disagree with the axioms.’

I think that’s what it really comes down to. Why does it always seem like these debates get lost in smoke and mirrors, and where do those come from? I’m not suggesting that anyone is intentionally throwing those up. I’m more likely convinced that we are dealing with some new set of dynamics that blogging philosophy on the internet (a VERY new formation) has produced. I have little doubt that some of what’s going on with the OOO phenomenon is a result of this.

But whether or not the smoke/mirrors/circles come from the OOO or relationist-process side, we’ve all gotta admit that, in psychoanalytic terms, we’ve got ‘an enactment’ here. We’ve all been seduced, to varying degrees, to a circle. And my question is, why?

But why not write it out, and say it clear, like you would talk to a child?

I think the burden is on OOO here, not on process-relationism. The reason why is the OOO is the new kid on the block. Process-relationist approaches have already done this work, there’s a whole cottage industry of Deleuzians, Whiteheadians, Peircians, etc. I’m not convinced OOO has yet done the work of really addressing its critics.

I’ll try to lay out here what I see as the key relation-process critiques (and I hope any others contribute to this). I think Adrian has laid them out first, and I hope I get him right, but here’s my summary:

1)  what determines when/if an object changes into another (genesis, dissolution, transformation)? To say ‘it just happens’ doesn’t explain how. What is the process of change? Or do new objects emerge as if from a void, and the transition is ineffable, magical, etc? If not, why not? And where does this change come from? And if from inside objects, how then does ‘the new’ mediate what is between objects?

2) It seems that whenever two entities link, they are an object. But what determines the boundaries of objects, or their difference from things like process or flow? Why are objects, and jumps and distinctions between them superior to flow/process which congeal/uncongeal into objects?

3) How do we determine what to call can object? If I say ‘my blue coffee mug’ over there, is this a shorthand for ‘that which appears to me as a blue coffee mug, but may in reality be different, to the point of even not ‘really’ being even a unified thing’? This is not asking whether or not qualities may be different, but whether the unity of what appears as a single object may be something which differs depending on one’s relation to what is. Yes, there are infinite objects, nested in each other, one of which is the blue coffee mug, and this is split into phenomenal/real objects. But are the boundaries and distinctions between objects flexible? Is the blue coffee mug an object, but the blue coffee mug and one oxygen molecule next to it not (or a less important or real object somehow?) Is the blue coffee mug and micky mouse an object? The critique articulated by process-relation folks is that OOO imports human seeming categories into ontology, bypassing questions of episemtology, while OOO says it has shifted the terrain. How is this shift accomplished? Where do the essences which anchor qualities come from? Is the answer any better than those given by Kant/Husserl, and how might OOO get beyond the critique leveled against ding-an-sich/eidos for these figures?

I’ve read a whole hell of a lot of OOO texts, and I still see no answers to these issues. Which is not to say that my ‘dropping of objections to OOO’ earlier this year was any less sincere. I think an OOO is possible. But I think it must deal with issues of perspective, and semiotics, etc. I think the proto-OOO that Latour describes in his text Irreductions does just this. But I don’t think the OOO currently being described does this, at least, not in a way that I can see.

That is, I think that the fundamental insight of OOO can serve to found an entire philosophical system which is coherent, and has answers to critics that they might not agree with, but see as legit answers. Philosophy is a game, and it has rules. Granted, each new philosophy shifts those rules slightly. But I’ve yet to see an answers that hits me as playing a game I recognize.

So, OOO folks, put our concerns to rest. Don’t say we’re already done it elsewhere, or you’ll get it in time, or something like this. Explain like you would to a child. Answer the criticisms one by one. Try to speak in a way that even us process-folks can understand. In fact, try to put your answers in our language, and show from within process-terms why they don’t encompass what OOO is doing. This is how new philosophies have always dealt with critics. Why can’t it be done here as well?

I think any new philosophical movement needs to do this. And when my networkological work comes out in print (more on this soon!), I will have to do this as well, and answer some tough questions. The burden is on the new folks. Of course, each new philosophy recasts the very questions being asked. Which is fine. But the burden is on the new movement to show HOW it recasts the old questions. But what I see in OOO is a proclamation of a new world, and when the old questions are raised, the answers are, but there’s a new world, you’ll see it soon!

My sense is this work has yet to be done.

But without bridges, it is hard to make that insight. Is it satori? Is it as much of a jump over the void as process folks think exist between objects? Perhaps the form of OOO’s mode of explanation is a reflection of the content. I’m not sure. But I think that it’s not a lot to ask for answers which clearly delineate differences in axioms. If OOO shifts the very axiom/argument distinction, long familiar to philosophy, then that should be said too.

It’d probably break the circular nature of the discussion if someone would just do it. Yes, it may feel like reiterating. But isn’t all teaching, both inside and outside of the classroom, reiterating what you already know? But whenever I teach, I teach myself as well, grow in the process, rethink, rework, and am taught by my students. I learn so much while teaching. So, explaining it again could even be a fruitful exercise!

And wouldn’t it be nice for there to be a definitive document (long blog post, essay, book) that does this, so that people who discover OOO in the future can be directed to this single work, Summa contra Processis/Relationalis?

I don’t doubt such a document would leave us process-relation folks unhappy. But if it’s done right, at least we could recognize it as philosophy and argument.

Few would argue that Kant and Hegel, for example, had different foundational beliefs, and these foundational beliefs even impacted what they felt argument meant. But had they both sat down to tea one day, I have no doubt they would still recognize that from the axioms which each took as fundamental, the world described therein logically flowed therefrom, and responses to critics logically proceeded therefrom as well. In theory, Kant could likely defend himself in Hegelian language, and vice-versa, and this is because once the founding axioms are accepted, the rest flows from there.

Sorry if any of this offends. I find a good argument invigorating, fun, educational, cathartic, cleansing. Maybe this comes from growing up Sicilian. In the Sicilian families I know, telling another family member they are an idiot, loudly, at the top of your voice, is a form of love, as is yelling and arguing and talking loudly and waving your hands. And after a good argument, you have a great meal, and love each other for being idiots, which I think is simply a way of saying different from you. I’m convinced good philosophical debate can be very passionate, vigorous, yet civil and friendly. All that’s written above is said with this as the intent.

It’s an attempt at meta-analysis, and isn’t meant of criticism of any particular person. We’re all contributing to this. For whatever reason, I think that OOO is not answering certain questions, and that is my subjective take. But perhaps I’m wrong, and I’m more than happy to be proven wrong – show me where, cite a specific text I’ve missed. Or write a work that does it. Prove me wrong, please, and I will enjoy eating my hat . . .

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~ by chris on January 14, 2011.

14 Responses to “A Challenge to OOO: Prove me wrong, or, write Summa Contra Processis-Relationalis!”

  1. Chris, I’m not a professor or writer of philosophy. Up till a few years ago, I was a serious, but amateur, reader of Lacan, Žižek and Badiou. I would describe my philosophical perspective as being deeply anti-realist, definitely correlationist and probably relationist, as I agreed with these thinkers when they traced back the complexity of the world and experience to diacritical systems and structures and so on, and always inevitably human ones. Badiou opened this up somewhat, and the question of ontology became central again, but it was still only accessible or writable as maths, anything else being relegated either to a delusional imaginary presence or to the austerity of the null set with no identity or unity whatsoever. In any case, hardly object-oriented in any sense. Not ridiculous, either.

    In any case, my point in all of that is, when I first started reading about Levi’s turn to realism and objects, I was very suspicious. But I had read Levi for so long, years and years, that I felt that if he was moving on from Žižek and Badiou, that he must have a good reason for doing so. That in itself, of course, is not convincing philosophically. What was convincing was his constant, day in and day out, almost, return to some fundamental questions that I had taken for granted, and his ability to flesh these questions out from different angles. The biggest one for me, or the initial point that brought me to suspend my previous beliefs, was my inability to really take seriously the split between ontology and epistemology.

    I think the characterization of the philosophy as cultish is unfair. Levi made some arguments and put forth some ideas, some people disagreed, some asked questions, and some eventually accepted those arguments and then moved on to what those arguments and ideas imply. I’m one of the latter people, and I don’t see anything remotely cult-like about it, unless philosophy itself is a kind of cult, and then, well, you can’t avoid it anyway. Perhaps it is because the philosophy is so different at the moment from what is normally being done, that it appears so strange or avant garde, I don’t know.

    But what ultimately bothers me about this post is that you do not yet have a serious understanding of what this philosophy means. I can’t understand that. I do understand if you don’t agree with it, if you reject it on certain grounds or so on, but how can you not, now, have a very good sense of where the philosophy comes from, what it is saying, and why it says it? Those arguments have been made. Tool-Being is, itself, a whole book dedicated to the problem of a total, relational system of meaning or ontology. For the past two years, almost every day, Levi has written very long and considered posts about object-oriented philosophy, from many different perspectives, and then become involved in disputes and conversations about those posts. Then we have some very laconic but very easily accessible responses from Graham, written without jargon, in very basic terms, explaining why relationist philosophy is inadequate. It’s all there. This is not to say that every response from these individuals or myself (or anyone!) is always as good as it should be. The arguments are not, and will never be, perfect. But to sit back and say, well, not just that you haven’t been convinced (which is another thing altogether) but that the effort has not been made to address very basic philosophical problems — that is impossible to believe. On this, yes, I think you are simply wrong.

    I apologize for the length of this post, but I felt those first remarks about myself were necessary for what I wanted to say. All of this is my experience and my opinion, and I certainly hope you take it in the way it was intended — a courteous disagreement.

  2. Perhaps some of it is that I have been reading OOO blogs for only about a year. But I have seen nothing to answer the critiques, supplied again and again by quite many folks, from a well known grouping of approaches (Whiteheadian/Peircian/Deleuzian, etc). And each time I ask for responses to questions, the terrain is shifted. And not in a way I feel resembles traditional philosophical argument.

    Now, if that is OOO, then so be it. If you can answer the issues posed by me and Adrian, in clear language, or refer me to a place that does, please do! Otherwise, your comment simply does the same thing as what I’m bemoaning, no?

    For whatever reason, process-folks don’t seem to recognize the answers we’re getting as traditional philosophical answers, otherwise we’d likely stop asking them. Each time there’s a swerve. I don’t think that swerve, however, is OOO, as it is now, or as it could be.

    But if it’s been all said before, show me where, or repeat it again for me. It shouldn’t take too long . . . can you write a 10 point refutation of key process critiques! I’d love to read it.

  3. ps – I don’t think Tool Being quite represents Graham’s most recent thoughts on these issues. Certainly ‘Prince of Networks’ and ‘Circus Philosophicus’, which I read both of cover to cover, along with his Vicarious Causation essay, seem to represent better his more recent approach. But this is to some extent beyond the point. There should be an easy answer to these issues, a key part of a key text, or you should be able to answer these things yourself. Otherwise, it’s more of the OOO swerve . . .

  4. Chris,

    Nothing that I’ve seen in Graham’s Tool-Being refutes his subsequent work. He’s continued to build and develop on that work. The claim that OOO is a “cult” is a strong one (and an unkind one as well). At any rate, if you’re looking for tight and carefully developed arguments, take a look at “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn or the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects. You’ll find them in spades. You’ll also find arguments throughout Graham’s work. It’s not as if we’re merely pulling things out of our asses.

    • Hi Levi, yes, I know it’s a slow build in Graham’s work. And I know your work has changed substantially, but there’s a similar slow build. I’m not saying OOO is a cult, but I’m kinda hoping it isn’t, and to be proven wrong. It’s not meant unkindly, for whatever that’s worth. But I am pushing for a certain type of answer to processualist critique. I’m holding off on reading Democracy of Objects till I can get a hard copy, but I’m really excited to do so. Despite my concerns with OOO, I really do enjoy it! I guess I’m looking for a systematic, point by point attempt to deal with processuralist claims. I think that would be a great thing for all of us to have. I will certainly check out ‘The Ontic Principle’

  5. I know Levi already recommended his own “The Ontic Principle” but I will go ahead and recommended it again. I haven’t read too deeply into OOO yet – basically blog posts/various essays of Grahams/Guerrilla Metaphysics, but “The Ontic Principle” helped answer/clear lines of inquiry into quite a few of the questions I had rattling around in my mind.

  6. [A similar comment has been posted to Adrian Ivakiv's blog. It is addressed to both of you]

    Chris,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I know you are a decent, polite and acute thinker and human being. Your only limitation (and Adrian’s) is that you stupidly (sorry) insist in the obstinate plan to ‘discuss’ with the OOOgists.

    When will you people realize that Harman and co. are a group of narcissistic, self-obsessed internet bullies proposing a philosophy that is debatable at best and a mesh-up of better philosophies at worst? Read (as you do already!) Whitehead, DeLanda, Latour and some Roy Bhaskar and you’ve got ALL you need to configure your own process-relational stance (which I share), avoiding time-consuming empty discussions with the Barons of objects. They have found their slice of philosophical market, luring in (and inducing ‘conversions’ in) more or less serious thinkers, loving the allusive rhetoric of the OOO vocabulary more than a good argument.

    There is a LONG story of group retaliations of the OOOists against relatively innocent critics or commentators on the blogosphere, where normal discussions suddenly turned into ferocious attacks to the ‘trolls’ — even when the observations of commenters were not directly addressed to them. Especially with Harman, ‘it’s ALL about him’. The man has got sizeable ego issues which turn quickly into a persecution mania.

    What makes you guys guilty here, is that more than once YOU have already been the bullied party! Don’t you learn anything from experience? You do not need to engage the OOOists to get more traffic, as I am sure that already a lot of people read your blogs because interested about YOUR ideas. I for once, actually SKIP new posts that are (AGAIN!) about the Objects gang and their ideas.

    Ultimately, the blog (and the time) is yours, but as a reader I urge you: cut off relationships with the Self-Oriented-Ontologists (ah, the irony…) and elaborate on your own ideas: there is NOTHING to be gained by discussing with them.

  7. As you may have noticed there is the tendency for articulate pro Levi posters to turn up in his defense whenever he is in a corner… you figure it out.

  8. [...] on that later, maybe. In the meantime I think this set of posts [1, 2, 3] from Chris Vitale is something like an emperor-has-no-clothes moment for OOO, both in terms [...]

  9. As I don’t have any published work (yet) – I’ve written a response to your challengesHERE

    Hope you find them stimulating. I think the notion of encapsulated interface is key into understanding an ontology of discrete units.

  10. I’m in the meta-object reduced becomes object camp.

    There’s statics and dynamics.

    Statics – the cart, the horse, the destination, and the motivation.
    More general terms (to allow for overlapping attributes):
    The independent – what moves – bank robber
    The dominant – where it moves – hideout
    The context – why it moves – police chase
    The focus – how it moves – stolen car

    Dynamics – these are the back and forth sometimes seemingly pointless actions that lead to a goal

    A shepherd must carry a cabbage, a goat, and a wolf across a river.

    The goat can’t be left with the cabbage.
    The wolf can’t be left with the goat.
    Only one may be brought across.

    The important thing is that the destination can also mean a change of state (position, relation, function).

    The last rule results in situations where the shepherd must cross alone (the solitary walk of the soul). Since we are talking about getting the animals and cabbage across, each of them become a separate goal and each requires its own motivation. And this is one of the details that gets lost. In those situations which the shepherd must go alone, he must remember the motivation to finish the whole task.

    If there’s any benefit we might have from any philosophy is the reminder that some motivations are concrete (move all to the other side) yet their associated phenomenalism (the shepherd goes alone) is abstract. The paradox is our general blind spot. He must move the goat, wolf, and cabbage, but in certain instances he must move nothing. This as close to a logical concept of faith and understanding (faithfulness in getting the job done) that we may come.

    If a philophical foundation can make these crazy pointless actions (a shepherd rowing without any cargo) more obvious and allow us to be more aware of our situation (economically, politically, and so on) then that is something we ought to put effort into.

    As for the mechanics of what an object is and when composite objects become single objects, understanding that an object exists before it is put into context might show that the lines are not necessarily blurred, but that they nevertheless exist as something more than just things that occupy space or sentiments.

  11. Chris, I’m sympathetic to your issue. However at the same time do you think there really isn ultimately a strong defense of process-oriented approaches to philosophy beyond their practitioners thinking they are more fruitful? In a sense your question is but one example of a huge slew of various opposing positions in philosophy. Sometimes there are compelling arguments. I think the arguments for and against externalism in philosophy of mind are compelling on both sides if ultimately indecisive. Yet while the approaches to philosophy are process oriented I think that at a certain point there just aren’t any arguments.

    I should note though that as a Peircean I tend to take a position that is a mix of what I perceive the OOO to be arguing for (what for a Pericean is Firstness) and what the process oriented philosophers argue for or presuppose (Peirce’s Thirdness). What I find problematic is the claim it’s all of one or the other. I agree OOO haven’t put forth compelling arguments for that. But then I don’t think the process philosophers have for their side either. In effect we end up with “burden of proof” charges which ends up being quite uninteresting.

    I rather like a lot of OOO despite having some difficulty understanding various nuanced positions. (Which, some of my OOO friends confess behind closed doors they do to) So I honestly think there’s a lot more work to be done in OOO. But I’m not sure that demands addressing these admittedly fundamental issues.

  12. [...] how can one get beyond the epistemological critiques of OOO? The response I’ve usually gotten is that OOO has dealt with and defused these [...]

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