Response to Levi: On Politics, Plasma, Internal Relationism, and Networkologies
With grades to do and all it took me a while to actually be able to reply to Levi’s really substantial and intricate post called “Further Remarks on Externalism, Internalism, and Politics,” which was itself partially a response to earlier conversations we were having on these issues. I’m glad to finally have the time now to sit down and seriously address his post, cause there’s a lot there to think about!
Levi’s Critique of Badiou and Zizek on Politics
Firstly, politics. I think Levi has it totally right when he says that Badiou’s “disdainful remarks about knowledge when contrasted with truth” lead to a somewhat sponteneist conception of politics. I remember asking Badiou a question on this issue at a lecture of his a few years ago, in which I essentially asked a question from a Laclau-ian position, which can be paraphrased as: “If we can’t know what a new situation will be like after a revolutionary event, doesn’t that limit our ability to plan for the future?” Needless to say, he wasn’t really amused, and I have much more sympathy for Laclau’s approach to these issues over Badiou’s. That said, I do share some of Badiou’s “disdain for the social sciences”, and by this I don’t mean the social sciences per se, but rather, the idea that the social can be “a science”. Scientism, in its various forms, is a danger to both the study of the social, but real science as well. Many of my friends in the social sciences are very invested in aspects of scientism I find worrisome.
I also think Levi’s on in regard to Zizek – how is it possible that a leap into the void is necessarily liberatory? Then again, the more likely one is to rethink EVERYTHING about one’s position, the less likely you are to be intransigent about doing so again, at least, this tends to be the case in practice. But theoretically? That is, would Zizek want subjects to retain at least some aversion to the sort of paranoid thinking that would a reluctance to change in the future (and therefore acting as a sort of reserve to ‘rethinking everything’ about one’s position)? A hard call. I can see why he says that you’d want the subject to question EVERYTHING about their position, without reserve, BUT, there’s a part of me that thinks there’s a need for reserve, if only on just this one potentially structural issue. Of course, the form/content distinction here is precisely what the very notion of a ‘master signifier’ seeks to question, so there’s a way of arguing that for Zizek, such a structural caveat is in fact taken into account by his approach. For isn’t the ‘discourse of the analyst’ precisely one which is always in motion, rethinking the master signifiers projected onto it? Might we then say that the true revolutionary is the analyst, rather than the hysteric? My sense is that when Lacan started to draw his ‘little letters’ on the board at Vicennes in ’68 (to be greeted by naked people!), that he was trying to communicate something to this effect. Isn’t the goal of analysis, after all, some sort of structural change in the subject, individual or collective? Trading one master for another is hardly doing that, a fact which I think and hope Zizek takes into account, whether explicitly or implicitly.
On Relational Internalism
Now the core of the matter – Levi’s concern that relational approaches, including a networkological one, lead to what he calls ‘relational internalism.’ Levi sums up his opposition to ‘relational internalism’ in the following really insightful quote:
If both Hegelianism and structuralism generated questions of how change is possible, then this is because both positions are strict internalists where relations are concerned. By “internalism” I mean any ontological position that holds that relations are internal to their terms, or that termsare their relations. Recall the celebrated example of the phoneme from structural linguistics. The phoneme
/b/is nothing independent of the phoneme
/p/, rather we only have the reciprocal determination of b and p in the relation b/p. Such is the core hypothesis of every internalism. There is no entity that is not reciprocally determined by other entities. Or, rather, entities are nothing apart from their reciprocal determinations. Althusser pushed this thesis very far, going so far as to say that individuals are just effects of social relations. From a Marxist point of view this thesis was attractive because it undermined the core thesis of neoliberal ideology to the effect that societies don’t exist, but rather there are just individuals. Althusser effectively underlined the manner in which persons are always entangled in social relations. Moreover, all sorts of delightful analytic tools arose from this thesis as can be readily seen in Althusser, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Barthes, and Jakobson. The problem was that this ontological thesis worked directly contrary to the stated aims of Marxist thought. For if internalism is true, there can be no question of social change because every change and action is immediately a function of its relations to the whole of which it is a part. Thereby every action merely reproduces the whole. It came to appear that there was no means of escape . . . Structuralism seemed to dissolve every possibility of agency precisely because agents already are but elements internally determined by structure. As my beloved professor Adrian Pepperzak used to say regarding his courses with Levi-Strauss, “we learned that all myths ultimately say exactly the same thing.” This too would hold in the case of social action . . . It was for this reason that the sons of Althusser (Rancierre, Balibar, and Badiou, then later Zizek) all began to search for a void point within structure. What was needed was something that was simultaneously internal to structure yet at odds with all internalist determinations of structure.
I agree with Levi that ANY relational philosophy needs to address precisely this core of issues; but IF, and only if, a relational philosophy sets up the terms of the argument the way Levi does. I don’t disagree with his logical chain of conclusions. I do think, however, that the problem can be framed differently, and that if this is done, many of the concerns Levi has with relational approaches will be taken care of, potentially bringing object-oriented and some forms of relational thought closer than they might at first seem. For I do think that ‘internal relationism’ is precisely the devious pitfall Levi describes it as. But I’m not sure all relational approaches are created equally, for in fact, the networkological approach strives hard to show precisely how it is that a relational approach can work without falling prey to ‘internal relationism’.
The Networkological Solution
Here’s how I think the networkological approach gets around this critique. From a networkological perspective, relations come in three forms: potential, emergent, and networked. Networks are diagrams for thinking relation (though they also PERFORM relation). That is, networks relate nodes by means of links, or to put this in the terms used by Levi, networks relate terms by means of relations. But beyond this, all networks are composed of not only nodes and links, but also GROUNDS. Grounds are the blank space in a network, that from which all networks emerge, and to which they must return (and this is where the performance of relation by a network is what links that network to process). Grounds indicate the dynamic relation any network has to the open.
That said, networks are only one form of relation, namely, those which have solidified. But what of networks in the process of emergence? There are all degrees of grey between solidified networks and fluid, fuzzy, potential, and developing networks. Aren’t these forms of, perhaps not relationS, but RELATION as well? And is not the potential to be related a form of relation as well?
From a networkological perspective, what is at stake is not merely ‘relations vs. terms’, but rather, the manner in which both of these are part and parcel of RELATION IN GENERAL. This is why it is perhaps useful to distinguish between relation-ism (the first) and relationAL-ism (the second), to separate these two approaches, because they have very different implications. When I use the term ‘relation’, I mean something much closer to what Deleuze would call ‘disjunctive synthesis’, or ‘difference/emergence-in-relation.’ For even disjunction is a relation, if of a particular sort. Networkological relationalism argues that all is related in one way or another, if by sameness or difference, within the process of emergence-in-relation. Such an approach is radically distinct from what Levi rightly critiques as ‘relational internalism’, which would be most certainly reductive in its approach to the world, and which would be criticized by a networkological relationalism for a variety of reasons (ie: assumption of the possibility of a god’s eye view on the world, etc.).
(And while I’m not sure that Hegel is an ‘internal relationist’ either, this is a debate that has raged since Hegel wrote his texts, namely, that between the so-called ‘right’ and ‘left’ Hegelians. I know Deleuze comes down on Hegel as being the former, but this is one of the few areas in which I think Deleuze oversimplifies. Hegel was the punching bag of the late sixties in France, and for important historical reasons. We all have anxieties of influence, this was Deleuze’s . . .)
Networks and Excess
Here’s why I think reframing the issue here helps assuage Levi’s concerns about a networked approach. For Levi, either there IS or there ISN’T an excess within structure (which he describes via the notion of a ‘mana’ term or ‘void in structure’ in the post in question). If you remove this excess, you get ‘internal relationism’, that is, an airtight structure in which all difference is abolished, and all hope for political change with it, because each and every action is simply a recapitulation of the structure-in-dominance (and it is here where we see why Althusser has often been charged with fatalism, and rightly so!). That is, if terms are completely determined by their relations, then there is no way for anything outside the system to ever emerge, no sponteneity, no change, etc. I agree with Levi that if a system is set up this way, it is airtight, hermetically sealed against change and the new.
But what if we had THREE terms here: relations/links, terms/nodes, and GROUND? From such a perspective, the terms and relations are continually being reworked due to their interrelation with a ground. This is a process based approach, with much affinity with not only the process based views of Whitehead, but also Latour’s notion of plasma . . .
Latourian Plasma and Graham Harman’s Rejoinder
In an excellent post on this issue, Adrian over at Immanence details how Graham deals with a notion similar to that of a ‘ground’ in Latour’s actor-network theory, namely, what Latour calls ‘plasma.’ According to Graham:
To escape relationism means to establish a metaphysics of the plasma or missing mass to which Latour refers. Only one note of caution is needed: there is no good reason to agree with Latour that the plasma has no format, since this would imply that all format must come from relations. [. . .] To summarize: mediating objects are always needed between any two objects, but a mediator would be needed to touch the mediator as well, and on to infinity. Hence, the world must also be filled with a non-objective gas or plasma in which direct contact is possible. That plasma is found on the interior of objects themselves.
It makes complete sense to me why Graham would want plasma to be inside the objects described in object-oriented thought (at least, ‘real objects’). That is, by having plasma inside real objects, there is an infinite reserve within each and EVERY real object to be different from what it is, and potentially in an infinite manner, leading to a wide variety of sensuous manifestations. This protects against precisely the sort of hermetic nightmare which Levi sought to avoid above.
The problem with this is that it would seem to make objects ETERNAL. Graham argues, for example, that a text such as ‘Being and Time’ necessarily has within it the ability to be different in different contexts, and this reserve above and beyond its relations is precisely where this freedom to be different lies. But this brings up the familiar issue of genesis: at what point did ‘Being and Time’ start to be what it is, at what point might it end, etc? And the only response here that I think does justice to what Levi and Graham are trying to accomplish is that in order for there to be INFINITE reserve within objects for difference/freedom, there must be INFINITE TIME associated with objects. That is, objects must be ETERNAL.
And this is why I think that in order to understand the logical ramifications of the current OOO/OOP position, we need to realize that it is precisely because of similar reasons that Whitehead was FORCED by his own presuppositions to posit the existence of ‘eternal objects’ (a notion closely related to the domain of the ‘lekta’ in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense). Now, to be clear, what Whitehead means by ‘eternal objects’ is qualities (not anything close to our commonsense use of the term objects). But isn’t this also, in a sense, what OOP/OOO means when they say objects, at least, in terms of how real objects function in relation to sensuous objects?
To Whitehead, when a quality shows up in an entity we can perceive in front of us, that quality ‘ingresses’ into that entity. So, a flower is not red in its essence, but rather, the quality of redness ingresses into the flower in question. Whitehead therefore has the sort of two-fold distinction between sensual and real objects at work in his ontology (at least when abstracted from the rest of his system), only he calls the first ‘actual occasions’ (as well as groups of actual occasions), and the second ‘eternal objects’.
Or, returning to the ‘Being and Time’ example: if all manifestations of ‘Being and Time’ in contemporary criticism are only ingressions of the eternal essence of ‘Being and Time’, outside of any of its manifestations, don’t we have the split-object at work in object-oriented approaches? Doesn’t ‘Being and Time’ function as a sort of quality here? But isn’t Whitehead an ARCH relationist? Am I really saying that object-oriented approaches are secretly Whiteheadian?! What gives?!
Well, Whitehead does have something like split-objects, but the context is crucially different in his system. Firstly, there is a disjuncture between qualities and entities in Whitehead, allowing for the infinite potential ingression of qualities in entities (and I use the term ‘entities’ here instead of ‘objects’ simply to avoid confusion). But Whitehead seems agnostic as to whether or not the infinite re-relatability of qualities and entities comes from within entities themselves, or within some sort of vacuum or void within what exists. This is because entities have ‘feelings’ which extend between them, even if they are still events/occasions which don’t directly touch each other, but only indirectly by means of feelings (part of the complex form of interaction between events/entities he calls ‘prehension’). What does seem clear is that the ‘potential to be different’ arises from multiple parts within Whitehead’s system (event/entities, the potential of event/entities to differentially link with event/entities, and the ability of event/entities to ‘feel’ each other), but not from the qualities themselves, which remain eternal. But since these qualities have the capacity to ingress differently in entities without reserve, they possess a sort of inverse of infinite reserve as what is seen in actual event-entities, and in precisely the manner we see in Graham and Levi’s use of objects.
My sense is that Whitehead ceases to be immanent when he comes up with his theory of eternal objects. And I see why he did it, because without this move, he’d have to think about the genesis of qualities. But despite appearances, I’m not sure object-oriented though is doing something fundamentally different than Whitehead here. That is, are Levi/Graham’s objects, along with Whitehead’s qualities, quasi-transcendental? And if not, why not?
My sense is that if objects and relations can be created and/or destroyed, then there need be nothing transcendental about these approaches. Whitehead, unfortunately, does opt for a transcendental approach, and this is one of the few areas where I disagree with him. But what about object-oriented approaches? My sense is that so long as objects can be created and destroyed, there is nothing trasncendental about object-oriented approaches. But if that’s not the case, why wouldn’t this be a sort of non-immanent transcendentalism?
Questions for Object-Oriented Thought
My gut instinct is that there are deep commonalities between object-oriented thought and relational approaches (particular of the networkological sort). Certainly these two approaches are designed to combat many of the same opponents. But there may also be strong differences, though I’m not sure these are the ones that may appear at first sight. Its with this in mind that I have five questions for object-oriented thought (and which I’ve fleshed out at further length here). I’d have a better sense of how object-oriented and networkological approaches differ once I get a sense of how Graham/Levi would answer these questions:
1) DISTINCTNESS: Within OOO/OOP, are all event-particles [a term Whitehead uses for the smallest possible quantum entity-event], and all aggregates thereof, distinct objects?
2) QUALITIES/CLASSES: How does OOP/OOO account for the existence and/or creation of classes for/within objects? Where do classes come from?
3) LIMITS OF OBJECTS: Is there anything that is not an object, or which becomes an object, or stops being an object, and how would we know? That is, how do objects interact with their limits (before, after, transition)?
4) NAMING OBJECTS: When one object transforms into another, at what point does it cease to be the same object – and more importantly, who/what gets to decide this?
5) EXCESS/RESERVE: Where does the excess/reserve presented by each object come from, and can it be created, destroyed, or transformed?