OOO, Thoughts, and More Thoughts
(main post on OOO starts below the apologia, below the dotted line)
So, I wrote this post below (after the dotted line) on OOO and relations a while ago, as a reply to Levi’s last post on this issue, but I didn’t want to post it right then, because it seemed that the ‘objects and relations’ issues were getting a bit heated, and I wanted things to cool down a bit. I want to make sure that any disagreements are civil, if not fun. But I also don’t want to let a disagreement with many points unanswered lie just for the sake of it.
Then again, I do find myself often criticizing OOO, and its proponents saying I’m ‘not getting something.’ Which is why a few weeks ago I did a fine-toothed summary and analysis of at least the final section of Graham’s Prince of Networks, which as we wait for The Quadruple Object and The Democracy of Objects seems to be the most comprehensive summary of the OOO position to date. All this can be found here, here, and here (and perhaps I was a bit too fawining in my review, just as I hope this reply isn’t too sharp! Ahh, the dangers of blogging). Because Levi in particular seemed to keep saying in various replies, but particularly his last reply to me, that I simply am not getting certain things, or fail to see certain things. Now, if that means we disagree, then perhaps we can say that. But that’s a whole different thing than misunderstanding. And I really don’t think I misunderstand these issues, rather, I think I disagree (and agree more with Adrian and Steve Shaviro’s approach to these issues).
Or perhaps it is that I’m posing questions for OOO that I feel so far have not been answered, or that the answers I’ve gotten don’t really relate to the questions I’m posing. This implies that we are speaking somewhat different philosophical languages, perhaps. But I’d like to work then to bridge that gap, because depending on how that bridge is crossed, it might be the case that OOO and (non-internal) relationalism might not be saying all that different things, and perhaps represent two of the several major branches emerging within contemporary speculative realism (object-oriented, Whiteheadianish or ecologically inspired non-internal relationalism, vitalism, Miellassouxism?).
Anyway, I’m posting what’s below in the spirit of good old fashioned debate, and hopefully fun. But I think to myself, when I get my full networkological work out in the world, would I consider it fun when someone decides to try to poke holes in it? Probably not. Unless I felt I could patch the holes without changing the fundamentals of the system. Either way, I think though I’d be pissed, at myself, if someone found a hole in my system I wasn’t able to foresee and stave off at the path. Of course, the argument could be made that in the process of adaptation, the system becomes stronger, more robust, but the process is most likely annoying. Well, it will be my turn soon to be on the other side, and I’m sure it will take some getting used to having my thought be the object of critique. And its infinitely easier to critique than to come up with something new. Critique is a large part of what we do, and criticizing philosophers who have already put their ideas out in the world is how most of us show others we are smart. I mean, that’s a lot of what we’re doing when we write on folks from Plato to Deleuze, we have to show others we are smart, its how we get jobs and promotions and things. Of course, critique is more than JUST this, for we also make texts new in the process, and find ways to give birth to new out of what already is, breathing new life into texts and ideas already circulating.
But in addition to critique, there also needs to be more synthetic forms of newness that enter the world, truly new thought, and making that jump is a riskier, more vulnerable enterprise. Well, I hope I take criticism as well as Levi and Graham have, as they are right now those who have put this new thought out in the world.
And new thought it is. For all my reservations, I share the excitement that OOO is something new, even if something which would have to mutate a bit were I to really say I can fully get behind. But perhaps if some of the questions I pose below are answered, or answered in ways that surprise me, then perhaps I can totally get on board! Then perhaps the difference between OOO and (non-internal) relationalism might not be as broad as it currently seems, more a difference in terminology and emphasis than large scale principles. Honestly, I would not be surprised. Either way, I do want to refine my sense of where OOO and networkological relationalism are similar, albeit with different emphases and terminologies, or in actual disagreement, as part of the development of my own position in progress.
But unless I’m missing something, the questions posed below have NOT been answered in the OOO texts I’ve yet seen (and if these questions are answered in a paper I haven’t read yet, please direct me to it!). And if these questions haven’t been addressed yet, then perhaps these goads can provoke OOO into venturing onto new terrain. I know my encounter with OOO has made my manuscript in process better already, because I find myself answering the OOO position as I know it now at several points, in advance.
Anyway, I hope I’m a good sport when the favor is returned, as I (and I hesitate to say it!) hope it is, and as it should be! Either way, nothing said below is meant to be nasty or personal, its just critique. I haven’t met either Levi or Graham yet, though I very much look forward to doing so, cause they both seem like nice guys, and I wouldn’t write this stuff if I wasn’t interested and impressed. And if I didn’t enjoy reading not only their posts, but the minutae of their process, daily lives, etc. Graham’s blog in particular has become a favorite read of mine often because of the smartness and fun of the remarks on things odd, literary, and sundry.
Finishing Up: On Objects and Relations
My sense is that it is Whitehead who provides the biggest challenge to the OOO position. I’m not necessarily a card-carrying Whiteheadian, though I agree with him on many points (not, interestingly enough, eternal objects!). But I do think he points out precisely what concerns me about OOO, and gives us a concrete example of a thinker who is relational, but not what Levi and Graham have referred to as an ‘internal relationalist.’
I really do think that the OOO thinkers have so far missed certain key aspects of Whitehead’s approach. For example, as I’ve argued in more detail here, Graham misses the key role of nexus/societies his reading of Whitehead in the final section of Prince of Networks. Secondly, by calling Whitehead a ‘relational internalist’, they miss what Steve Shaviro rightly recognizes as the major role of privacy in Whitehead’s account of actual objects/occasions. There are many, many reasons why Whitehead does NOT produce the ‘hot potato’ or ‘hall of mirrors’ that worry Levi/Graham, including the role of nexus/societies, the privacy of actual occasions, the role of negative prehensions (which is related to the former but not exactly the same), and finally, the primordial ability of all that is to differ from what it is (which Whitehead describes in relation to his very strange notion of ‘God’). For in fact, each and every ‘actual object’ in Whitehead decides, in privacy, how to ‘feel’ what they encounter.They take in the input of what is around them, but then they put their own spin on it. And they do this in PRIVACY (and this is Whitehead’s term!), in a manner that is partially determined, but never fully.
I can’t say this enough, but for all of these reasons, Whitehead is NOT a ‘relational internalist’. He believes in relations but also excess and withdrawal. But I think why OOO might not want to allow for this is that it opens a can of worms, namely, that one can be a relational thinker but not a relational internalist. But I think this is a key distinction that needs to be made!
Levi’s Critique, or, the Jump
What seems to really concern Levi about my last post on this issue is when I ask ‘who gets to decide’ if a cane toad is a froggie (my nephew) or a cane toad (a scientific expert). And he argues that I fall into the ‘epistemic fallacy’ (which I think doesn’t really say much, because the difference between ontology and epistemology depend on your presuppositions, on which we simply differ), and that the objects ‘do just fine’ without us deciding things about them, etc. But here’s why this all worries me.
I think Steve Shaviro has nailed it when he says (in a forthcoming essay for The Speculative Turn) that the biggest issue facing OOO is that of change. Where do objects come from, or do they just pop into existence ex nihilo?
For example, Graham gives the example in Prince of Networks of thinking up a ‘Monster X’ that never previously existed. At that moment, a new object pops into existence. But from the void? Well, its assembled from parts of other objects that existed, monsters he’s seen with other qualities, non-object-like animals, etc. But this novel combination leaps into existence at the very moment that Graham thinks of it.
Firstly, the nature of the jump here interests me. If the object ‘Monster X’ is assembled from previously existing parts, each of which is an object, as is ‘Monster X’, there is some sort of jump between these two states: assembled, and unassembled. I’m curious to know more about the nature of that gap. Is it also an object? It seems essential to OOO that this gap exists, and yet, I’m not sure its an object.
The Convex Mirror
Secondly, the issue of continuity. That is, would an object like ‘Monster X’ vanish from existence after the earth vanishes from the sky? It would seem not, for Graham also speaks of “dormant”/”sleeping” objects (ie: a forgotten idea) and “non-relating objects” (ie: “untapped markets”), so it would seem to me that the ‘Monster X’ idea would then simply go to sleep until someone else happened on its formula, or maybe just stay asleep for ever. But why then isn’t it possible that Monster X had ALWAYS existed beforehand, and Graham simply tapped into this ‘eternal’ form of Monster X, without realizing it? Is there any way we could know whether or not this were the case, from an OOO perspective?
Either way, the notion I’ve just described is that of Whitehead’s notion of ‘eternal object’s, and this is why I keep bringing these up, though Graham and Levi seem puzzled as to why I keep doing this.
Its not that I think that Levi or Graham think objects are eternal – rather, I think this idea ‘haunts’ OOO as a challenge to be taken up. Levi deals with potentials within objects, though Graham seems much more concerned by this notion, and seems to feel that the question is one of withdrawal, rather than potential. But either way, it becomes impossible to know, it would seem to me, whether or not an object had ‘always existed’ and we just tapped into it, in a sense, by experiencing it, or whether it jumps into existence, over the gap between its parts and the new whole.
Either way, it seems that objects can exist, potentially for eternity, as dormant or non-relating. But if so, why not take this argument and run backwards as well as forwards? It seems silly to say that once created an object can exist as ‘non-relating’ for all time, without implying that perhaps it was always there beforehand, and we simply didn’t notice it. Or perhaps more importantly, we could not know whether or not it always existed or not.
So perhaps it is undecidable whether or not objects are eternal in OOO. Either way, I’m concerned with the ramifications of all this. I don’t personally like the idea of eternal objects, I think it’s a weakness on the part of Whitehead, and I think there are ways around having to use them (that’s a discussion for another time). But I do think that the ‘eternal object’ issue is one that OOO needs to deal with. Because if we have eternal objects, then this really highlights the fact that we need to account where they come from, OR, we have ‘old fashioned metaphysics.’ Unfortunately, for Whitehead, eternal objects are just ‘there’, a real weakness in his system if you ask me.
Either way, my sense is that the eternal object issue reflects, as if in a hyperbolic reflection in a convex mirror, some issues with OOO that are difficult to see without taking the arguments to their extremes, as the notion of eternal objects does. For the eternal objects issue really puts into relief the question: where do objects come from? Some sort of potential? But if so, is this an object, or something different from objects as such? What is the relation of this potential to the gap that seems to be jumped when a new object is formed? Is this gap some sort of relation, or perhaps the largest object? If so, is it a solitary object? Full of relations? Perhaps THAT’S something I could get behind, and if that were the case, and I’m not sure if it is or not, then perhaps OOO and certain relational models might not be as different as they first seem!
Without these questions answered, my sense is that OOO wants objects to pop into and out of existence as needed, without giving a thorough account of how this happens. But this just seems random to me – where do these come from? And why do some objects, like Monster X, get to be created ex nihilo, but what we could call ‘material objects’ have very specific requirements for doing so? For example, a real cane toad needs to be born. But is saying that these are simply two different types of objects saying something, or just ‘passing the potato’, in a sense?
‘Thinking’ like an Electron?
All of which brings us back to the issue of ‘who gets to decide’ if an object is a cane toad or a froggie. Obviously, the toad itself does not know whether or not it is one or the other, because it doesn’t have language. The ideas we call ‘froggie’ and ‘cane toad’ are in fact ‘objects’ that were invented by humans. A toad does not know if it is a cane or not. Yes, there is a real amphibian there in front of us, but humans decide whether or not the objects ‘cane toad’ or ‘froggie’ apply in a given case. They can be mistaken, obviously, and this is what Graham means when he discusses the lamp-post example in Prince of Networks. But what is the toad in itself, beyond the ideas we give of it?
A Whiteheadian approach would be that it’s all a matter of perspective (not that there is something there, but what type of something), and this is where Levi accuses me of the ‘epistemic fallacy’. I think the toad IS a cane toad for the expert, and a froggie for my nephew, and these are both equally ok from their points of reference. But is this the dreaded correlationism?! So it might seem at first. But in the post in question, I gave an additional example, namely, the perspective of my nephew, the expert, AND THAT OF AN ELECTRON, which Levi doesn’t mention when he goes at me in that last post for being correlationist.
But this addition is crucial. To an electron, the cane toad is most certainly NOT a froggie or cane toad, but simply a pattern of sub-atomic particles, some more dense or differently composed than others. That is, the electron has a perspective, and makes decisions, but this is NOT old-fashioned correlationism simply because Whitehead uses the terms ‘perspective’ and ‘decision’. Whitehead is trying to radically rework what these terms mean.This is why Whitehead uses the term ‘prehension’ rather than ‘perception,’ because he doesn’t think that entities like electrons are conscious, even though they do have a form of proto-perception, called ‘prehension.’ Its correlationism, but not quite, in fact, it really deconstructs the correlationism/non-correlationism binary as a false one. That is why at times I’ve referred to this as what Meillassoux has called ‘absolutizing the correlation’ – but with a multiplicitous twist. Just saying this is an example of the epistemic fallacy doesn’t really say much more than we disagree on the border between epistemology and ontology. My sense is it shifts the terrain of the question.
Where do I and the OOO thinkers disagree? They seem to want to get rid of the correlation, and I’d like to make a very Whiteheadian move with it, namely, bring it into the world and give it this multiplicitous twist. Sometimes I think Graham wants this as well, and there are some quotes to support this in Prince of Networks, but I’m skeptical if OOO does that.
I also think that the issues of change and distinction (ie: between froggies and can toads) in OOO concern me, and I would want to account for these things differently.
But there’s a possibility that the account of the jump, decision, and continuity of objects that I haven’t found in OOO texts just might surprise me!