On the OOO critique of relationalism as ‘Hall of Mirrors’: Beyond Lego universe

(At the risk of starting chaos or getting yelled at in a variety of ways, a further thought on OOO . . . )

So I’m finally going to meet Graham this weekend, which I’m quite psyched about. I’m going to be delivering a critique of OOO paper at Villanova, entitled ‘Epistemology or Ontology? Yes, Please! A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ I actually wrote the talk a few months ago, was going to post it on the blog, but it took on a mind of its own and got quite lengthy, hence, conference paper.

I actually offered three abstracts for that conference, two on networkological issues, one on OOO. The organizers said they were curious to see my critique. I was hoping for a less confrontational route, seeing as I didn’t want Graham to only think of me as a critic. But hey, what can you do, I tried. And I understand, OOO is out fully in the public domain, while my networkological work won’t really be out in full till the Zer0 book is done. And it makes sense that the conference organizers might want a little good natured controversy.

Anyway, with the talk coming up, it does have me thinking more about some of my issues with OOO lately. And while writing my post on cinema yesterday, it hit me why in a nice, clear package why I find the OOO critique of relationalism as ‘hot potato’ or ‘hall of mirrors’ unconvincing. Here’s the quote from my post yesterday,

Deleuze firmly believes that the universe is not, like Nietzsche argues in some places, like a set of legos, made up of finite parts, and hence with a finite number of combinations. No, for Deleuze, there are infinite potential recombinations of our world, because entities, or images, are not like legos. They can be infinitely divided and redivided. And hence, there are infinite potential combinations and recombinations.

For Deleuze, the world is much more than just legos, it is infinitely divisible and redivisible, which is why we must always relearn, via cinema in all its forms, to believe in the world, believe in its potential to be radically new, and infinitely so. With infinite divisibility, there is infinite recombination and hence possibility . . .

Cinema is the practice of world dividing and redividing. The more intricate the relations, the more variety of ways we can relate and rerelate to our world. Cinema on screen can help us see new ways to view our world. It rearticulates the world, and in doing so, shows us potentially new ways to live life. For life and cinema are two sides of the same. Cinema is life, and life is cinema.

And it can always be done differently, in an infinite potential number of ways.

The OOO critique of relationalism rests on the notion that if the world is a ‘hall of mirrors’, then there’s no way in which difference or the new can come to be. That is, if everything is related to everything else, then there’s no withdrawal, and hence, no newness. The world is like a set of metal bars connecting metal balls, rather than the shifting multiplicity we know it to be. Thus objects must withdraw, and relations must be distinct from their terms, and terms withdraw from relations. From such a perspective, relationalism is like some sort of hydra seeking to drain the lifeblood of the poor objects.

Now, were we dealing with objects and relations that are fixed in number, rigid, or divisible only to a degree, this critique would be correct. But if the substance of the world can be divided infinitely, then we have infinite possible forms of redivision, and hence, recombination. And here we see a hidden presupposition of the OOO critique of relationalism, namely, a block, or lego-style universe. Without that, the critique of relationalism falls apart.

The block-universe, a universe made of indivisible atoms, was used by Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra to justify the doctrine of the eternal return, though in later works, he seems to have found less need for this deductive proof. The proof in Zarathustra, essentially lifted from the Roman Stoics who first invented this idea, goes like this: if there’s finite matter in the universe and infinite time, then eventually every combination must happen, and there must be repetition of the same universe at some point, and in fact, an infinite repetition thereof of this, stretching forwards and backwards in time. I’m almost paraphrasing Nietzsche’s prose here word for word.

The presupposition upon which this argument relies, however, is a block universe, a universe of basic primitives, like atoms, which cannot be divided. Firstly, quantum theory seems to call this into question. Every time we think we have gotten down to rock bottom, at higher energies, we find more sub-particles. What’s more, spacetime begins to smear in many of these conditions. It seems in general, though, that the higher the energy, the more sub-particles show up, fractally, and infinitely. Quantum foam seems divisible all the way down.

Secondly, we have the issue of the infinite divisibility of the continuum, dealt with separately by philosophy in the figure of Xeno, and in mathematics by Dedekind. Aristotle’s solution splits the difference in ways that are useful even today. Lines are potentially infinite, in that you can slice them anywhere, even if there are practical limits on how many times and how many ways entities like humans can split them. While this is slightly different from Aristotle’s solution, it updates it in relation to contemporary math. For example, just as Cantor’s proof of transfinite numbers showed that there were an infinite different degrees of types of infinity, infinity is still something which is practically impossible for us to count. The number line has a potentially infinite amount of numbers, but it is not actually infinite, because we simply couldn’t count them all . . .

In addition, there’s also Badiou’s take on this. His notion of the empty set present in all sets, the representation of the void in any situation, describes his notion that thought is infinite, that the stuff of the universe is always able to be infinitely redescribed. The signifier can cut anywhere, and with infinite potential distinctions. While any particular universe is never infinite, the potential of the universe to be redescribed is infinite. While Badiou ‘proves’ this by mean of Cantor, I’m not sure we need to take this step. I’m not sure I buy what Badiou means by proof. But I do buy the larger point, namely, that there are many strong arguments for why it makes sense to view the world as infinitely divisible, and hence, infinitely potentially redescribable.

This is not to say that objects don’t, to use the terms employed by OOO, withdraw. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think if we start using OOO terms, then relations have to withdraw too, and in fact, every aspect of what is must withdraw, and there are potentially infinite aspects of what is. But I ultimately don’t think the relations/terms distinctions holds in a way that makes sense to me.

These are not the issues to be raised in my talk. But this other set of concerns, which I’ve had for a while, congealed in my head in regard to legos just the other day. And it seems to me that committing to a block universe is problematic. Yet, it seems to me that the OOO critique of relationalism as a ‘hall of mirrors’ or ‘hot potato’ rests necessarily upon this. Am I wrong?



~ by chris on April 5, 2011.

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