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]
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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 . . .