Against Lava-Lampy Relationalism, and Get-Off-My-Lawn Objectism

Just a quick response to a recent post of Graham’s on Thomas Metzinger.

Metzinger and Graham’s Quickie Thoughts of Critique

I must admit I’m quite new to Metzinger, and at the moment, I’m reading through The Ego Tunnel, mostly due to Graham’s repeated mentioning of him. This is after writing an entire manuscript on contemporary cognitive science (will someone edit this one for me while I finish up editing the manifesto book?). This manuscript is meticulously researched (basically 2 yrs of reading intensively in neuropsych stuff), and I must say, most of the AI and cog.sci. literature doesn’t speak of Metzinger. Perhaps that is because he comes from philosophy,something I am of course sympathetic with. But he never came up in my previous research. Granted, there’s a lot of redundancy in this lit, so finding folks with something novel to say takes a bit of searching once you know the major issues involved. Folks like Gerald Edelman, for example, are much more than researchers or popularizers, but conceptualizers, and finding them often requires swimming upstream a bit. But I’m surprised I hadn’t really encountered Metzinger before Graham, not sure what that says, but needless to say, will work to integrate some of this stuff before that manuscript goes out (though I have my hands full with other things right now!).

But I must say, so far, I find his approach really interesting, a phenomenological approach to the limits of conscious states, and I agree with Graham that Metzinger’s at his strongest when he is describing potential ramifications of limit-phenomena of consciousness when examined from a scientifically engaged philosophical perspective. What I don’t like, so far, is the elements of eliminativism in his work.

Still, the quote that Graham has the most difficulties with in his recent post is one that warms my relational heart. Here is is:

“There are no decontextualized atoms. The relationship between those aspects or subregions is a mereological relationship. On lower levels of phenomenal granularity different aspects may be bound into different low-level wholes (different colors or smells may belong to different perceptual objects), but ultimately all of them are parts of one and the same global whole.”

I have no problem with this. But Graham finds it and related talk to be bohemian, lavalampy adherent of the Deleuzian underground.” All of which makes we wonder precisely what it is that bothers Graham about these sorts of things.

The Problem with Lava Lamps

From what he says, it seems to be this: “objects lose twice in Metzinger’s system . . . Where is the kind aunt to lend objects a comforting word and give them a kiss and tell them that they aren’t worthless, that they have value, that they can grow up to be something important someday?”

What’s perhaps surprising is that I find Graham’s critique here powerful as well. I guess I don’t see the problem as either-or. I do think that objects all need to be deconstructed, particularly because our contemporary world I think lends far too much solidity to objects. And why shouldn’t it, I mean, it was very evolutionarily beneficial to do so! But I think that Graham’s rejoinder is also well placed – the last thing you want to replace fixed objects with is a ‘squishy’ relationism that reduces everything to a new-agey soup in which ‘it’s all the same, man, just feel the flow of the universe.’ Because as we know, the flow of the universe is in fact the capitalist axiomatic turning us into stew.

What then? I think there are twin dangers here. Firstly, while objects need to be deconstructed into processes and relations, we need to realize that these points where relations meet, these nodes, can always surprise us. And it seems to me that this is one of the key insights of the object-oriented project – objects can surprise us, and infinitely maintain the power to do so, and we need to elevate this to philosophical principle. I couldn’t agree more.

But I think that objects can surprise us precisely because of the relations which comprise them. But there’s got to be a lot of caveats here, lest we simply end up with squishy relational soup, so to speak. Firstly, its impossible to know ALL the relations at any given point. Unless one can take up every possible perspective, in all time and space, upon a given intersection of relations in our universe, how can one know, fully, what an intersection can do? Secondly, we can never know in advance the ways in which intersections of relations can overdetermine each other. Thirdly, we can never know the potentials which lie lurking in any aspect of this world, because the world has never ceased surprising us, and all that we know seems to have come from ordinary matter, just under some extraordinary circumstances (ie: the Big-Bang). I’m not convinced we can know what any aspect of the world can do.

Such a relationalism is, to use some of the contemporary buzzwords, anything but squishy. Dark, perhaps? While it reduces objects to intersections of relations, it also reduces relations to extensions of objects. It doesn’t believe that one has priority over the other. Rather, it works to show how each provides context for the other.

Why do I still call myself a relationalist then? Well, I do feel that our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to prefer solidity, as it quite well should. In fact, I think differentiation within matter does the same. But reification, differentiation, and limitation on one level of scale is precisely what allows for the new to emerge at higher levels of scale.

I do think, however, that just as relationalism has a dangerous tendency to dissolve everything, so reification has a dangerous tendency to solidify things. We have here centripedal and centrifugal forces. And I think our contemporary world is erring on the side of objects.

Beyond the Squishy Hippies

None of which means, of course, that we need squishy relationalism as a corrective. It’s the philosophical version of contemporary ‘hippie-ism.’ There were lots of, for lack of a better word, ‘hippy’ types at schools I’ve gone to. And I must say, the aesthetic jives with me much more than many others, and I’ve lived in my share of semi-commune type places (the Berkeley coops, woohoo!). They have their up and down sides. But I’ve gotta say, real hippies, the ones that get it, aren’t the ones with the tie-dies and Phish tickets, all paid for with their parents credit cards. Real hippies (for lack of a better word) often have short hair, and could care less about which jam band is on top. They prob don’t own a lava lamp. But they often do a lot of hard work to make the world a better place.

Which is to say that if you’re gonna be a hippy, whatever that means, there’s ways to do it right, and ways to botch. Just like relationalism, and objectism. But facile relationalism shouldn’t be seen as any sort of antidote to capitalist reification. In fact, if the reifiers are capitalism’s tools, ‘squishy’ hippies are its dupe. If you want to undermine capital, buying a tie die doesn’t do it, it just supports it. Now, trying to figure out how to create structural change in our world, that’s a different story, but it might even require putting on a suit on occasion. World-changing is pragmatic, and often doesn’t get stoned all day.

Beyond Squishy Relationalism

But back to philosophy. Squishy, superficial relationalisms dissolve the traditional, but allow these new flows to be swept up by new, more insidious relational systems, like contemporary capital flows. Just like yesterday’s superficial hippies are often tomorrow’s republicans once they have some cash in the bank.

But such devious relational systems (Deleuze/Guattari’s famous axiomatics of capital), the ones that sweep up liberated flows, even those liberated in the name of revolution (the ‘sexual revolution’ being case in point), are precisely themselves not-relational enough. That is, they employ the most advanced destratifying powers towards ultimately paranoid ends. And paranoia is object-oriented, just as dissolution is relationally oriented. Followed to their end, either can be dangerous. Facile relationalism is easy prey for devious relationalism, these hybrid formations that employ reification on some fronts, relationism on others, all in the name of a deeper paranoia. Can we say these are ultimately object-oriented or relational formations? I’d say neither. They ultimately serve paranoid aims, but these are just as dangerous as overly curious aims. Deleuze and Guatarri as as careful to warn against overrapid deterritorialization as they are over-concentration. There are multiple ways, in their terms, you can botch making yourself a BwO. Paranoia or radical schizophrenia? Neither is an attractive option, and any society that opts for one or the other is in for a world of trouble, for it is easy prey for the hybrid formations now devouring our world.

I hope none of this is offensive, I’ve tried to slam both sides. Because I think that both object and relational approaches have a facile side, and a complex, perhaps ‘dark’ side. And it’s easy for each to slide into the others. I mean, Graham will probably always find the lavalampy stuff just as uncomfortable as I will find the object metaphored stuff. But ultimately, I think we end in many similar places, despite a slight different in how we get there, and what we emphasize. Only when relationalism is as weird as OOO does it not reduce objects. But objects must also not reduce relations. And I think often relations get caricatured by OOO folks.

But today’s relationalism needs to be aware of the pitfalls of yesterday’s, just as OOO needs to be aware of the pitfalls of yesterday’s more object-oriented approaches (which aren’t hippy-dippy, but rather, what often goes under the name of ‘common sense’ or ‘folk-wisdom’). It might be cooler to be a relationalist, and hence knowingly cooler to reject relations as superficial. But good relationalism and good object-oriented approaches I think have pretty similar goals.

I don’t think any of us here in the spec.realist blogosphere is actually a hippy-dippy relationalist, nor a curmudgeonly object-type. I think we are much smarter than that. But, I think we both have our built in default positions that we need to guard ourselves against. I’ll always find flowy metaphors comforting, and Graham will always likely find them just as concerning as I find really solid ones. But I think its how we rework those metaphors to undermine them from within to produce something infinitely more complex. I mean, all thought must start somewhere, words will always fail, we need to use them precisely to undermine them.

I think any philosophy can become silly when reduced to simplest terms. I mean, Thales, it’s all water?! But there’s so much more there. Same thing happens when you have silly debates like those between idealists and realists, or absolutists and relativists. In the abstract, neither side is ever right, the whole game is rigged to be impossible. But everyone falls likely towards one side or the other of these, even if they do so in much more complex ways than the reductive models would imply.  There are simple and reductive ways to be an ‘anything’ (idealist, realist, etc.), as well as much more complex forms thereof.

But rarely does a conversation framed in simply such binaries get anywhere. Anything interesting is far more complex, and dare I say, weird than that.

Point is, I think the world of objects and relations, when done right, are flip sides, recto and verso, of speculative realism today. The trick is to avoid both of the caricatures thereof.

~ by chris on January 12, 2011.

One Response to “Against Lava-Lampy Relationalism, and Get-Off-My-Lawn Objectism”

  1. Great Post, Chris. Favorite Line: “World-changing is pragmatic, and often doesn’t get stoned all day.” I know a few people who could benefit from that little piece of wisdom. 🙂

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