Relationism vs. RelationALism: A Response to Levi

So, what’s below started as a reply to Levi’s long comment on my last blog post, but it turned into a post in itself . . .

Here’s the main stuff in Levi’s comment:

For me, at least, it’s a matter of indifference as to whether we refer to entities as objects or subjects. Here, I think, Graham is much more sympathetic to your position than you suggest. This is evident not only from his writings on panpsychism (he devotes a chapter to this in both Prince of Networks and Guerrilla Metaphysics, but also in his continual instance that the difference between how minds grasp other objects and how objects grasp other objects is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, for both Graham and myself no object ever grasps another object as it is but always distorts it in its own unique way. Nonetheless, one advantage of using the term “object” over “subject” is that the latter tends to invite obsessive focus on humans, ignoring all other entities and treating them only in terms of how humans relate to them.

It does not seem to me that you’re absolutizing correlation in the way discussed by Meillassoux or advocated by Hegel. For Hegel there is ultimately only one subject, Spirit, and everything is internally related in that subject. There is nothing beyond this subject. This is the meaning of the identity of substance and subject. By contrast, you seem to advocate a pluralism of actants that each grasps other actants in its own unique way. Nothing could be further from Hegel’s system. Adopting a self-reflexive gesture, while you claim that object-subjects are nothing but their relations to other objects, you seem to say something quite different in your actual analysis. To wit, you talk about entities grasping other entities differently, but for this to be the case there must be something in excess of the grasping. Yet this spells the ruin of an absolute relationism because it can only be stated on the premise that entities are something other than their relations. The subtractive object-oriented position, by contrast, is not that objects don’t enter into relations, but rather that it cannot be claimed that objects are their relations. I think my post today addresses some of your questions as to when an object exists. I’ll add that if the “when” of an object is dependent on language a philosophy can have no claim to realism and is intrinsically correlationist because it has necessarily made objects dependent on humans to affect cuts in the world.

A few initial thoughts of reply. Firstly, I do certainly see Levi’s point, that with Hegel, there is ultimately ONE subject, and that with the type of relationism espoused by, say, Whitehead, Deleuze, etc., there are many, many subjects. Of course, Meillassoux would not really acknowledge such a distinction, for him, there is either correlationism, speculative realism (his version), and speculative idealism (absolutization of the correlation). The fact that this is inadequate is precisely what I’m trying to get at here, namely, that there is this other approach, that of Whitehead, etc. That said, I think Meillassoux, and not necessarily OOO/OOP, would call this some form or another of ‘absolutizing the correlation’, no?

In terms of relationism, I think I’m using this term somewhat differently than Levi does in his comment. When he says that “an object is nothing more than the sum of its relations”, this does not hit me as what I’d necessarily call a ‘thorough relationism.’ Rather, it hits me as an object-oriented definition of relationism. Perhaps it makes sense then to distinguish this notion of ‘relationism’, from the separate notion, drawn from the tradition of Whitehead, et.al., perhaps best called ‘relationALism’.

Here’s what I see as at stake in relationalism.  The approach I’m arguing for is that all IS relation, and relationalism would therefore be an attempt to think that thought, and to do so relationally. Relational thinking would work to show that the excesses which make objects more than the sum and total of their relations are at base a function of relation as such. This notion of relation in the process of its continual emergence would not be any relation in particular, but rather, that which produces both relations and objects, in a deeper and more fundamental sense. That is, while there may very well be objects which exceed the sum total of their relations, this very excess may be the product of the relations involved – and may dissappear if the relations themselves vanish, for in fact both objects and relations are the product of the process of the continual coming to be of relation as such.

Relational thought would then work to make sure that there is no notion within a philosophical system which  conceives of itself as outside the process whereby relation comes to be. The name for this, as I see it, is emergence, for emergence is relation-in-process, just as relation is what emergence gives rise to. Relational critique works to make sure that no term in a philosophical system, neither subject, object, relation, or excess, defines itself in a manner which is not based on its relation to relation-in-process, or emergence. Ah, but I feel now I’ve gotten a little too jargony, which isn’t my intent at the moment (there’s more than enough time for that in the book!).

Back to the more standard jargon on this issue, and Levi’s points. From a relational perspective, I very much DO believe that there are excesses whereby objects exceed their relations. But then for me the question becomes WHO/WHAT gets to decide what an object is. And I don’t think the answer can be that everything is an object. One can argue, for example, that every quantum event-particle is an object. But why then are some objects ‘more objects than others’ in certain situations: for example,  why there is a coffee mug on my desk rather than a set of floating qualities? It is in these sorts of cases in which I think it becomes essential to ask precisely the difference between object and subject. Or rather, to ask the question of how it is that certain things become objects, and special types of objects, FOR certain entities, and OVER others. That is, who or whatt can say that THIS is an object, and this is not? If we define an object as precisely something which has an excess to its relations, then the issue becomes this: how does excess get there?

That is, either EVERY quantum event-particle has excess equally, and conglomerations of such particles have no particular excess over and above its simple aggregations thereof (in which case, we need to think about what gets to qualify as a ‘material object’ of everyday experience and what does not), OR, something must determine how it is that some aggregates of quantum event-particles get to qualify as objects, and others as simple aggregates. Why is my coffee cup an object to me, but the air around, ill defined as it is, is not?

Where does the excess come from?

My sense is that it must come from a subject, or something LIKE a subject. Of course, in the form of relationalism I’m espousing, and which will be made MUCH more concrete and specific when the book manuscript is done (just one more batch of papers to grade till I can return to work!), I believe that everything is both subject and object, if in differing degrees. I wouldn’t normally use these terms to lay these issues out, but because we are talking about objects here, well, when in Rome . . . But to use these terms, I believe that each matter acts as subject, in that it determines what Whitehead calls the ‘ranking’ of ‘relevance’ of entities around it due to its perspective on the world (a function of distances, capabilities of being affected, , etc.).

The result is that subjects determine what is and what is not an object, they deposit the excess of relations in objects that affect them. Metals, for example, live in a world in which magnets play a huge role, but plastics do not. For a bit of metal, as subject, in this sense, a magnet is certainly an object, for that magnet retains identity yet with difference, depending on the manner in which the metal and magnet reconfigure the spatial relations between them over time. But for a bit of plastic, a magnet may not be that ‘interesting’, it may simply be just a hunk of stuff piled amongst other stuff, a magnet may be simply part of the indifferent stuff that surround it, rather than something of ‘import’. This is where Whitehead’s notion of relevance is crucial.

Of course, I think we need to be careful not to impute consciousness to bits of metal and plastic. I think in this sense they are proto-subjects. They are affected by the world, but do not consciously perceive it. In this sense, they are proto-subjects, for they make ‘choices’, in a sense, albeit, unconsciously. I realize this is a novel usage of the term ‘unconscious’, but I think in fact it applies. While Whitehead prefers instead to use the term ‘prehension’, there are reasons why I think ‘unconscious affection’ may work better here. But if we think of the Lacanian notion of the unconscious in a structural manner, then the dynamic and structural aspects of the unconscious processing/thinking of matter is essential to understanding the manner in which matter acts in the world.

Terminology aside, I’m not sure that me and Levi and Graham actually disagree on many of these issues. For in fact, I’ve been working so hard on my manuscript, that I haven’t quite been able to keep up with all the developments in the OOO/OOP dept. Its not that I’m working in a bubble, because the work I’m doing with the networkological project is definitely in the speculative realist end of things, but I think it approaches some of the issues from a slightly different angle. And that’s lead me to keep tabs as a fellow traveller of sorts, while really banging away at my own thing.

But the difficulty of trying to relate my own project back to OOO/OOP then, is to figure out precisely what OOO’s position is on a variety of issues. But because many of Levi and Graham’s books are ‘on’ other thinkers (Latour, Deleuze), and only recently have they been writing directly on their own work as OOO/OOOP in and of itself (ie: last chapter of ‘Prince of Networks’, various recent essays by Graham and Levi), the result is that, until ‘Circus Philosophicus’ and ‘Democracy of Objects’ comes out, I’m left to sift through tons of blog posts, which is hardly the best way to learn about a field in any systematic sort of way.

Which leads me instead I guess to just do a few blog posts of my own, and see the areas where our ideas are in sync, and where they are not, right?

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~ by chris on May 7, 2010.

2 Responses to “Relationism vs. RelationALism: A Response to Levi”

  1. Nice post, Chris – and great blog. I’m eagerly awaiting your book…

    The distinction you make between subjects and ‘proto-subjects,’ or prehensions and ‘unconscious affections,’ reminds me of some recent work in biosemitocs, where Marcello Barbieri has been arguing for a distinction to be made between two forms of semiosis: coding (which involves a context-independent and more automatic ‘reading’ of something without need for interpretation, as in the genetic code or the Morse code; one could still get it wrong, but there’s no better or worse reading), and interpretive or hermeneutic semiosis (which is context-dependent and requires some prehensive or ‘sense-making’ effort/action). Barbieri is arguing, contra C. S. Peirce, that semiotic signs of the interpretive kind don’t go “all the way down”, but only emerge as a later evolutionary development. I know that’s not exactly what you’re getting at, but I’ve been trying to grapple with Whitehead’s relationship to Peirce, so I thought I’d mention it.

    Incidentally, you may have answered my question on relation/al/ism (see bottom).
    Cheers, Adrian

  2. Reminds me of Shelling a bit; both perception and interaction between different forms of matter form a continuum, with perception forming an unusual and particular variant.

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