Relationalism to the Extreme, Excess, Eternal Objects, etc.
Relations vs. Objects? Yes Please!
Do we need a ‘ceasefire,’ or is this relations vs. objects debate fun/helpful? I think there’s some approaches we haven’t worked through yet . . .
Unfortunately, it seems I’m about a month behind some of the most interesting posts on this issue, but I was really only tangentally following the blogs last month, as I was hard at work on the manuscript before the onslaught of end of semester papers.
But my goal with the networkological project is to see if it is possible to come up with a fully relational theory of what is. In many ways this is an experiment: can it be done? I’m pretty convinced that, based on the fact that the manuscript is nearly done, that it is very much possible, but there were many odd ‘discoveries’ I encountered along the way. Which of course brings up a key point – the only way to know a philosophy is to do it – to write it out, debate it on blogs, etc. I’m not convinced that verbal philosophizing forces you to be detailed enough. But blogs are an in between format.
Which is why I’m not sure exactly why it is that Graham is looking for a temporary ‘cease-fire’ in the recent ‘relations vs. objects’ discussion! I think its quite exciting. And as Levi argues, its dialogue that gets these things fleshed out.
Do the relational and object-oriented sides of speculative realism (to use a set of jargony terms if I’ve ever seen any!) really disagree? And if so, why, and to what end? I think these are important questions. I also think that ‘back and forth’ over blogs is usually productive, and when it ceases to be so, it usually just runs its course. Then again, if paper grading has us all too busy to reply, now THAT’S another story, but I think there’s more stuff to say here . . .
The Context (with Adrian, Graham, Levi, and Steve . . .)
My sense is that a lot of the debates we have going on right now between Graham, Levi, Steve, and Adrian is due to the fact that the object-oriented version of the relational approach is perhaps not exactly where I’d see relationism going. In fact, I’d like to push the notion of relations here much, much further than it has been in a lot of the discussions on this issue. I think that when Graham says that he sees “relationism as a spent force” – that this is because the notion of relationism he’s thinking of is being seen through th lens of objects. But what if we could make objects and relations ‘speak the same language’, by taking the relational approach to its extreme?
First some background. When Adrian states “Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real,” I think he hits a key point – we see objects because capitalism has taught us to do so. Then again, I’d also argue, with Whitehead (and hence I don’t doubt Adrian would agree), that there is also the reifying apects of language, but also embodiment and taking up a particular perspective within spacetime. Reification is part of what it means to exist at a particular spacetime location, and I think that thought requires that we figure out ways to get around how this enables yet also warps our larger relation to the world. Capitalism, and paranoid politics in general, I think, are merely echo of this much deeper set of problems, even if they do much more damage.
I also find I can’t agree with Steve Shaviro more when he says that:
Harman and Bryant are more Kantian than I am”, for it does seem to me that the discussion of the ‘excess’ to relations . . . To say that objects do not encounter one another, because they cannot entirely know one another, is to reduce ontology to epistemology, once again.
That is, it seems to me that the very notion of the ‘excess’ beyond relations, or of a ‘real object’ which withdraws from relation is precisely an attempt to understand the Kantian ding-an-sich, in its contemporary garb. I also couldn’t agree with Adrian more when he says that:
I see no reason to defend one end of the relational spectrum over the other — the object over the flow, or vice versa. But it seems to me that when relations are made central to ontology, then the question becomes one of parsing out the different forms of relative stability and change one finds in the world (with the more stable over time, and over their developmental histories, being those we could call “objects”), the different kinds of relations one can enter into, and so on. On the other hand, when objects are made central, this dynamism is lost at the outset.
None of which is to say, however, that objects don’t withdraw – I’m very sympathetic to the Bergsonian/Deleuzian notion, bolstered by contemporary complexity theory (ie: Stengers, Prigogene, etc.) that objects are governed by clusters of singularities which are not immediately present to view. H20, for example, changes its form with temperature and pressure in relation to a series of singular points which can be mapped as a network. THIS it would seem to me is certainly withdrawn from our sensuous contact with water or ice or steam, and a truly relational OR object based theory must of necessity deal with this sort of withdrawal.
What interests me, however, is the ways in which we can think the PRODUCTION of this excess. That is, how did the universe produce the sort of network of singularities which governs a given substance over its series of changes, such as H20? How do we relate such a network of singularities to the wider such networks which govern the behaviors of the contexts within which a molecule of H20 could find itself?
Relations to the Extreme . . .
I think the real way to go here is both holographic and fractal. As I will argue in my new Networkologies manuscript, there are FIVE primary principles of a relational approach: process (relation-in-time), holography (relation-in-space), fractality (relation-in-level), inter-mediation (relation-in-virtuality), and emergence (relation-in-differing). Let me explain how the holographic and processural sides of this manifest, because I think this helps make sense of some of the ‘relations vs. objects’ end of things in interesting ways.
From a fully relational perspective, EVERY location in spacetime, and with it, any matter, mind, or whatever you may find at that location, is a perspective on all that is, has been, or will be in spacetime. That is, all that is is holographic – take any aspect of the whole of what is, it will reveal the rest, from its own perspective. We know from relativity theory, for example, if we move forward or backwards in relation to certain very distant objects, we literally see into their past or future (for more on this, see Paul Davies excellent exegetical work on these issues in About Time). Time is laid out before our view nearly as much as space, and EACH location in spacetime gives us a different layout of the whole of what is.
The result is that time becomes, in some sense, spatialized, and each location in spacetime is a holograph of the whole. It refracts it according to its own relational position within what is. This means, following Leibniz’s famed logic, that each entity in the universe “contains the whole”, if differently.
Back to Objects . . .
This means that every location in spacetime is absolutely singular, there is no other like it in its ability to refract all that is. Following Whitehead’s notion of ‘extensive abstraction’ (a mouthful of a term if I’ve ever heard of one!), points are mathematical fictions, its really an issue of parts and wholes, of mereology. That is, what matters is not the abstract and impossible mathematical notion of a point as ‘spaceless’, but rather, the minimal spacetime location in which an ‘actual entity’, which he sometimes calls ‘event-particles’ can take place. Despite terminological issues, the point is that from any position an entity takes in spacetime, any and all event-particles enfold ALL that is, if differently. This is the relational principle of holography, just as the continual change therein is the principle of process.
Does that mean there’s no excess there to its relations? In fact, I’d say that EVERY location in existence has an excess to all others, for in fact, unless you could completely duplicate the worldline through spacetime followed by a given entity, you could never ‘know’ what it experiences of the whole. And since matter in general does not allow two entities to occupy the same (world)line in spacetime, it means that just about everything that exists has excess to all others.
But this is because its relations in spacetime are different! That is, I’m not convinced that this excess is something that pre-exists, rather, it can be created and/or destroyed, mutated, etc., and this happens all the time, for in fact, the universe is nothing but the continual process of doing this.
All of which brings us to the Whiteheadian notion of ‘eternal objects’ (for more see this excellent post by Steve Shaviro) which he needs in order to make his whole system cohere. Whitehead’s approach to what is can roughly be divided into event-particles (which he usually calls ‘actual objects’), and ‘mental objects’, which he calls ‘eternal objects’. They are eternal because they are pure potentials which then ‘ingress’ into objects. For example, every shade of green or yellow or any other color that could ever exist pre-exist the universe outside of time and space as pure potentials of the world. As plant grows, various shades of green and yellow will be incarnated in that plant as it goes.
Why does Whitehead need to go there? Because without going there, there’s not way to understand generalities or classes – notions like the color green. Nor the notion that all forms of H20 share certain qualities, like solid-ness, gas-ness, liquid-ness, or even H20-ness. All ideas that ever could be in the universe pre- and post- exist us as potentials for Whitehead.
I think this is ultimately a weakpoint in Whitehead’s theories. That is, I can see why he NEEDS the notion of eternal objects, for without them, why or how could we know anything about the world around us? I think Whitehead doesn’t do the labor needed to understand why 1) the world has classes (ie: all water molecules are roughly the same, whether or not humans see them, and/or 2) why living organisms find generalities and classes useful, and why the evolve them.
I’d like to think that the notion of ‘structure’ I’m working on in my networkologies book answers the first issue, and issues related to animal/human evolution answer the second. Now’s not the time to fully get into the details, though, but I do think it possible to get this worked out without eternal objects, which hit me as, well, as one of the few examples of OFM (‘old fashioned metaphysics’) in Whitehead’s work.
But I wonder, how does Object-Oriented Philosophy/Ontology/Onticology deal with the issue of general relations in the world or in humans, which Whitehead needs to solve via ‘Eternal Objects’? Or are all objects eternal for OOO? And why wouldn’t this be an example of OFM?
My sense is that if we take relationalism to the extreme, and account for classes and generalities relationally, that there’s no need for ‘eternal objects’. But my sense is that OOO needs these for some reason – UNLESS, that is, it sees the excesses present within objects as produced, destroyed, and transformed in a continual process, in which case, it seems to me, OOO and relationalism could be very close to saying some VERY similar things, just from slightly different perspectives . . .